Self-destruct Sequence

According to Ron Rosenbaum, when the Cold War ended—and especially after September 11 raised the specter of a nuclear attack by terrorists—people “succumbed to a historical amnesia” and stopped worrying about the old-fashioned kind of nuclear war, the one that could happen between states. In his provocatively titled new book, Rosenbaum, a longtime journalist and self-professed “obsessed outsider,” aims to erase this deficit of conscience and prudence. How the End Begins illuminates both the genuine strategic risks of nuclear war between such adversaries as Israel and Iran or India and Pakistan, and the residual dangers (think Fail-Safe) of the nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia.

Rosenbaum starts his analysis by wondering whether humanity got through the Cold War without a nuclear exchange by virtue of the “ingenious design of deterrence” or by “sheer luck.” He suspects mostly the latter. In support he offers lively accounts of the circumvention of purported fail-safe mechanisms (like the Rube Goldberg “spoon-and-string” maneuver devised by launch officers to enable an ICBM to be fired by a single man instead of two), the perils of brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Yom Kippur War, and the Soviets’ misinterpretation of a 1983 NATO nuclear-war exercise as real. Until the end of the book, when he acknowledges the effective internalization of the nuclear taboo by American decision makers and some of their foreign counterparts, Rosenbaum gives short shrift to the third reason that the world escaped annihilation during the Cold War and after: self-deterrence. In his authoritative The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, which Rosenbaum does not cite, Sir Lawrence Freedman nicely limns the superpowers’ integration of this factor into strategic policy:

So long as the [nuclear] weapons were around even a skirmish between the great powers seemed extraordinarily dangerous in its escalatory potential. Strategy required working with and around this danger. The durability of containment encouraged the view that at this level the strategy worked and at a crude and basic level it did. The Emperor Deterrence might have had no clothes, but he was still Emperor. For both sides, from the early 1950s and in the face of thermonuclear weapons, prudence was the better part of valor.

Early in the Cold War, this existential caution, reinforced by the awful spectacles of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, impelled civilian strategists to reject John Foster Dulles’s threat of “massive [nuclear] retaliation” as a standard means of asserting military power, and to conclude instead that nuclear weapons were at bottom political rather than military, and should never be used. The result was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), or “threaten[ing] genocide to prevent genocide,” as Rosenbaum puts it. Drawing on the analogy of hostage-taking, the doctrine’s ethical perverseness is undeniable. That is why the great nuclear strategists—Brodie, Schelling, Wohlstetter—arrived at it so reluctantly, and why some—like Herman Kahn—were never satisfied with it.

Rosenbaum does not sufficiently appreciate that MAD’s source, if not its logic, was essentially moral. Still, he is on to something in fretting that MAD might not work with rogue states led by erratic dictators or religious zealots. This leaves preemption and abolition as the only effective strategic options. The calculus of preemption is the subject of the book’s most riveting and eye-opening chapter, in which Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal—who coauthored the Israel Defense Forces’ ethics code—suggests that while Israel’s retaliation for a nuclear first strike would not be moral because it would not save Israel, a preemptive strike by Israel would be moral because it could. This kind of thinking—compelling in its candor as well as its reasoning, and quite consistent with the loose consensus countenancing preemption that has coalesced since 9/11—would strain just-war theory and yield a far less stable world than that of the Cold War.

As for abolition, Rosenbaum, while lionizing its advocates, doubts its feasibility, because nuclear weapons remain both a military ace in the hole and a political status symbol. As a second-best dispensation he suggests getting rid of land-based missiles, establishing a minimal submarine-based nuclear deterrent, and de-alerting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Yet such measures are scarcely relevant to the risks of nuclear war between Israel and Iran, or India and Pakistan (or the risk of a North Korean attack), which he correctly deems the most salient dangers the world faces today.

Contrary to what Rosenbaum suggests, serious efforts to minimize these risks are underway. They may, of course, prove unavailing. In that case, the near-universality of the nuclear taboo would be the best hope, and preemption the last resort. That would be cold comfort indeed. How the End Begins is a dire and timely plea to governments and analysts to forge a more stable and reassuring solution—to think as hard and inventively as the Cold War strategists did about how to ensure that nuclear weapons will never be used.

The book contains a number of flaws. For one, Rosenbaum’s claim that too few of the people who can do something about state-to-state nuclear war care enough to do so. This seems doubtful. The considerable momentum behind ballistic missile defense, for example, is more about North Korea and Iran than al Qaeda, and the fact that arms control has survived the George W. Bush administration’s hostility to it indicates entrenched concern about nuclear risks. There is strong evidence, meanwhile, that the deeper strategic rationale for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is to head off a potentially nuclear war between India and Pakistan. And policy journals are rife with dire discussions about containing the Iranian threat—for instance, Dima Adamsky’s “The Morning After in Israel” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.

Other problems include the snarky, breathless hyperbole, labored metaphor, and self-congratulatory tone of moral revelation that permeate Rosenbaum’s narrative. Challenging Barry Goldwater’s famous line about extremism, the author sonorously asks, “What about total extinction in the defense of liberty?” In probing former Air Force missile-launch-control officer Bruce Blair about American and Soviet nuclear-operating procedures, he allows that he “felt somewhat like Dante being guided by Virgil down into the circles of nuclear chain of command hell.” I can’t help feeling that the fly-on-the-wall equanimity of the author’s previous (and brilliant) book Explaining Hitler would have served him better here as well.

Still, there is much to merit attention in this well-researched and incisive work. I respect Rosenbaum’s assertion that the moral and logical conundrums of nuclear war and nuclear deterrence remain unanswered, and his impassioned argument that only nuclear abolition can put these conundrums to rest—as well as his sobering conclusion that such a happy result may ultimately be impossible.

Published in the 2011-05-06 issue: 

Jonathan Stevenson is senior fellow for U.S. Defense and editor of Strategic Comments at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He served as director for Political-Military Affairs, Middle East and North Africa, on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2013.

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