There is an interesting opinion piece today by Timothy Egan on nytimes.com about mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD is a Cold War era policy that says essentially “if you nuke our cities, we promise to nuke your cities”.
Egan assumes, like many people do, that MAD kept us safe during the Cold War. But he criticizes the Pentagon for continuing to rely on MAD in an era where the greatest threats to United States security are terrorist organizations:
MAD makes sense in a rational world: the Russians or Chinese would never try to wipe us out, because we would then wipe them out. They want to live well and prosper, as do we.
But MAD makes less sense at a time when the enemies of civilization are cave-dwelling religious fanatics who target cartoonists and kill innocent children at soccer telecasts and think, if they die in nuclear Armageddon, a sexual reward awaits them in heaven.
The problem is that MAD doesn’t make sense in a “rational world”–and actually might make more sense when dealing with “cave-dwelling religious fanatics”.
Imagine a man comes home and finds that his neighbor has come into his house while he was gone and brutally raped and murdered his wife and children. The man is likely to want revenge of some kind. This is normal. He very well might want his neighbor to die for his crimes. But is the man going to respond by going sneaking over to his neighbor’s house, and doing the same to the neighbor’s family? Probably not. The neighbor committed an absolutely horrific crime–one that was outside of all standards of rational or reasonable behavior. To respond in kind would be an almost equally horrific act, that again attacks innocent bystanders and does not directly respond to the man who committed the original crime.
But the MAD policy would be like the man saying to his neighbor “if you brutally rape and murder my wife and kids, then I will brutally rape and murder yours”. If you kill millions of my people in an unprovoked attack, then I will kill millions of yours. Both statements are meaningless. Once my wife and kids are dead, I gain nothing by killing your wife and kids. Once my cities are destroyed, I gain nothing by destroying your cities. The threat isn’t credible. Besides, it would take a madman to kill his neighbors family, just like it would take a madman to launch a preemptive nuclear strike–and who is to say how the madman will react to a threat like that.
MAD isn’t a rational policy to deal with rational neighbors, as Egan suggests. MAD amounts to telling your neighbor “I think your crazy, well guess what, I’m crazy too!” MAD didn’t keep us safe during the Cold War. We were kept safe because the USSR and China weren’t ruled by sociopaths intent on global nuclear holocaust.
But here’s the odd thing. Now we are facing a threat from people who are perhaps a bit crazy–or at least willing to sacrifice themselves and countless innocents in order to achieve their aims. And there is an argument to be made that MAD actually does make sense in response to that kind of threat. This argument relies on several assumptions, that may or may not be true:
1) We have accurate enough information about the location of al Qaeda’s top leadership to be able to kill them with nuclear strikes–and the terrain in which they are hiding will not protect them from nuclear strikes.
2) Al Qaeda’s leadership believes that at least some of them must survive in order to continue to push forward their vision.
So imagine that al Qaeda were to get hold of a nuclear weapon, and that both of those assumptions are correct. We haven’t nuked al Qaeda because the of the international fall out for using nuclear weapons. But then al Qaeda sets off their nuke, destroying lower Manhattan. Suddenly using nukes against al Qaeda is on the table–as a retaliatory strike and not a preemptive one. If assumption #1 is correct, then using nukes on al Qaeda will effectively destroy them. Okay, so if al Qaeda’s leadership knows that, and if assumption #2 is correct, then our threat of nuking them might actually deter them from nuking us. Of course, if either of those assumptions are incorrect, then this logic falls apart, and MAD goes back to being just a bad policy.
In other words, Egan is exactly wrong. MAD is an insane policy that has no business in a rational world. But there might be a place for it against a fanatical enemy.