The logic of nuclear terrorism is that retaliation becomes the crime

We think there is a pretty good chance Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could get away with blowing up lower Manhattan in a nuclear martyrdom operation.

Absurd, you say. Ridiculous. Unthinkable. Well, think again. We have written on this subject before, but were reminded of it again when we read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s piece in the LAT yesterday. The piece argued against attacking Iran (in almost identical terms to a London Times piece today), and included this:

[T]he notion floated by some who favor military action that Tehran might someday just hand over the bomb to some terrorist conveniently ignores the fact that doing so would be tantamount to suicide for all of Iran because it would be a prime suspect, and nuclear forensics would make it difficult to disguise the point of origin.

Brzezinski seems to be wrong that setting off a bomb in NYC would necessarily be “suicide for all of Iran.” Brzezinski’s reasoning is incomplete and self-serving, ignoring many factors, including the length of time required to do a forensic analysis, the probability of the analysis proving inconclusive, and the role of the media, among other factors. Let’s leave aside (or perhaps not) that this analysis comes from a foreign policy team so feckless that they let America and 52 hostages be humiliated for 444 days without taking effective action. Let’s take a look at what the US plans to do in the realm of “nuclear forensics” in the case the big one goes off in front of the New York Stock Exchange, via NYT:

The Pentagon has formed a team of nuclear experts to analyze the fallout from a terrorist nuclear attack on American soil in an effort to identify the attackers, officials have said. The team, which can draw on hundreds of federal experts, uses such tools as robots that gather radioactive debris and sensitive gear to detect the origins of a device, whether a true atomic weapon or a so-called dirty bomb, that uses ordinary explosives to spew radioactivity. The objective is to determine quickly who exploded the device and where it came from, in part to clarify the options to strike back, the officials said….

A senior military official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the program, said the threat reduction agency successfully conducted an exercise in October involving hundreds of people from many agencies. The participants, he said, included field workers gathering radioactive samples, nuclear analysts in laboratories working on the data and intelligence experts.

Do you understand what nonsense is currently the standard procedure of the United States in response to a suitcase nuke going off? “Hundreds of people from many angencies” will get their paws into this matter. For how long and when will they gather radioactive samples? How many committee meetings will there be, how many conference calls? What happens if the experts can not all agree? What happens if the plutonium actually came from old bombs spirited out of the Ukraine or Russia? What happens if Iran claims that materials were stolen? What happens if a Pakistani or Indian group claims responsibility? What happens if in a month the “hundreds of people” form the following conclusion: there is an 86% probability that the nuclear material originated in Iran?

If you are the president, do you act on the 86% chance? What about the 14% probability that you are wrong? And by the way, what is it exactly that you intend to bomb? Some military facility? Qom? Teheran? With what intensity? Will the destruction be proportional, or larger? Why?

On top of all these problems, consider what the worldwide media would have been doing for the days or weeks or maybe a month between the New York bombing and the completion of the forensic analysis. Imagine the 24/7 coverage of candlelight vigils, expressions of sympathy, and interviews with young children and old women by CNN, Fox and all the rest in Teheran and around the world. Day after day of wailing and calls for no more war, and pleas by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury and various Imams and rabbis. To top it off, just imagine listening to Jimmy Carter or maybe Zbigniew Brzezinski himself calling for restraint.

Imagine the CNN graphic as the investigation proceeds: “Countdown to Doom.” How many times would we have to watch Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove? How many retired generals would be on the op-ed pages of the NYT and on the cable news? Do you doubt what we would hear from Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, George Clooney or Richard Gere?

All these horrors, on top of the horror caused by the New York explosion, are the reasons that things must be prevented from going that far.

The logic of nuclear terrorism is that retaliation becomes the crime. That is one reason why the Chirac Doctrine is preferable to the “nuclear forensics” approach with its “hundereds of people” doing all manner of analysis for a protracted period of time. Jacques Chirac has made it clear that if a WMD goes off in Paris, he has nuclear missiles with a return address to Mr. Ahmadinejad, no questions asked.

The United States should be similarly forthright in saying, for example, that in the event of a catastrophe, the likeliest suspect can expect instantaneous retribution 100x or more powerful than that visited upon this country. We can think of no reason for strategic ambiguity that serves the interests of the United States. Indeed, there is an ancillary good effect that the promise of destruction has on the “likeliest suspect” — that country would have an increased interest in policing others. We are not claiming that the approach suggested here is perfect; rather that the current policy of the United States, with its ambiguities and delays, makes it more likely that a gunslinger like Ahmadinejad might reasonably conclude he could get away with an unspeakable act.

12 Responses to “The logic of nuclear terrorism is that retaliation becomes the crime”

  1. Steven M. Warshawsky Says:

    Brilliant analysis, and deeply chilling.

    Of course, the 25-30% of committed liberals in this country not only will never understand this analysis, they truly believe it is better to suffer deaths among our own people than to cause the deaths of “innocents” abroad. So for them, the proper response to nuclear terrorism indeed will be to “pray for peace” and hold candlelight vigils. Pathetic.

    But what of the remaining 70-75% of Americans? Why haven’t they opened their eyes to the danger that’s standing right in front of them? Why are so many of them “silent” and unwilling — or afraid — to stand up to the Islamist menace that threatens to destroy much of what we’ve built and created as a society and as a people?

    I cannot explain it, other than to point to the enormous brainwashing power of the mainstream media and the academic and cultural left in this country, which over the past 30+ years has succeeded in turning patriotism into a vice and undermining the strength and vitality of the people (especially the men) of this country.

    The phony bluster of people like Brzezinski and others on the left who counsel caution in dealing with Iran, but then talk about how Iran would be wiped out if they nuked us, is truly despicable. They know that they will oppose any meaningful retaliation, and that they will use all their power to prevent it from happening.

    And if a Democrat is in the White House, their approach probably will prevail.

    The Iranians are smart enough to realize this. They’ll wait a few more years before exacting their “revenge” on us.

    Then what will we do?

  2. roy franks Says:

    If a suitcase nuke goes off here we should just start with Iran and calmly go down the list of these
    murderers one by one , day after day, in a manner so harsh and shocking that the world will be completely and totally in shock. What will the rest do, go to the UN? Enough is Enough with these
    sub-human murderers!

  3. Jason Says:

    There is no doubt that the government needs to take a strong position on overwhelming and immediate retaliation, i.e. we will shoot first and ask question laters such that the left never gets a chance to second guess. It would be helpful if we got so committed to that position that it would be difficult for a subsequent administration to unwind it.

    We also need to invest in more robust border & detection technology and people.

    Here is one for you. What the heck would we do if we actually caught someone with a smuggled but undetonated WMD in the U.S. and we knew where it came from?

  4. David Goebel Says:

    This is all so terrible. Clearly if there was ever a case for prevention instead of cure — this is it.

    It seems an error was made many years ago when the NNPT was negotiated not to create an international uranium fuel bank to guarantee a supply of fuel at a fixed or reasonable price. Alas we didn’t do that, so what to do now?

    Maybe it’s not too late. Let’s create such a bank today. I heard Hans Blix on the BBC recently saying Sweden, which had something like 20 nuclear reactors, has no interest in enrichment for purely economic reasons. Nearly all the current signatories of the NNPT would accept this amendment. Prehaps this would create unanimous internation pressure on Iran and North Korea and avoid this nightmare.


  5. ShrinkWrapped Says:

    SW’s Top 10 Mothers Day Edition

    It has been quite some time since I have posted a Top 10 list and the quality of posting in the blogosphere continues to impress; as a result it has become harder and harder to distill the 10 Best posts

  6. Alan Says:

    Your reasoning makes no sense. Your entire argument boils down to the notion that somehow in the face of nuclear terrorism the entire West would just roll over an die. Come on, that is preposterous on its face — did we do that after 9/11? Why then would be just give up when faced with a crime far worse?

    More fundamentally, your argument for why we need to take action is self-contradictory. If we would be too timid to exact retribution after having one of our cities turned into a mushroom cloud exactly why do you think we would take action when it comes to (one assumes) attacking/bombing Iran to prevent the use of the bomb in the first place? That is a far less cut-and-dried proposal that is far more likely to promote criticism than seeking justice for nuclear terrorism.

    You are effectively arguing that we need to be strong in proactively attacking some nation that MIGHT be a threat because we won’t have the backbone to punish them if and when they DO take action. That’s preposterous. It sort of like saying people are far more willing to accept jailing people because they might commit crimes than jailing them when they actually do. That sort of argument flies in the face of logic and common sense.

    If you want to convince others of the necessity of taking forceful action against Iran you need to do more than berate them for being too timid in the face of an event that has not and may not happen.

  7. Mike Says:

    Alan, I think you are missing the point. The point is not that the West would roll over and die. Where was this said in the piece? The point is in the title of the piece, that retaliation becomes the crime. That the bigger sin is if we were to retaliate against a nuclear attack, not the nuclear attack itself. Just like after 9-11, when we were supposed to understand our attackers, as if the US controls every person in the world.

    The argument is not self-contradictory. Liberals and the left would be too timid to respond. If the President were to only be 86% sure that Iran was the culprit, would that be enough for them? It wouldn’t be. What about for the rest of the country? Look at Iraq. France, Britain, Russia, and US intelligence agencies all were convinced Saddam had WMD. Where is the support for the war? Do you think they will support a war against Iran, even if we were attacked? I would hope they would open their eyes, but I am doubtful. It’s only been 4.5 years since 9-11, and already people forget why we are fighting and who we are fighting against.

    The point is that we had conclusive evidence of nearly all of our reasons for going to war (except WMD, which is still in question), yet it is only 3 years since we invaded Iraq and already the public support is dwindling. What do you think would happen if it took a year or two to reach conclusively that Iran was behind it. What if it’s not conclusive? Are you willing to support the 86% or less chance? Do you think that after two years, at the end of which we may not even be sure who did it, that people (as a whole) would still have the backbone to go after them? If you do, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

    As for the jail analogy, it doesn’t fit. Discounting just about everything except murder (since people wouldn’t want to be wrong about minor offenses), if a potential murderer talks about the destruction of another person, of couse the threat is enough to lock them up. Even if it wasn’t a crime, do you think law enforcement officials would sit by and wait for the murderer to strike before they do something? Obviously you would have such things as surveillance on the suspect, plus if they did try something and were unsuccessful, there would most likely be attempted murder charges. That’s a pretty bad analogy to the current situation.

    As to your final paragraph, if you are the President and are entrusted with protecting and defending the country, would you sit by and wait? What happens if you’re wrong?

  8. JJ Says:

    “Here is one for you. What the heck would we do if we actually caught someone with a smuggled but undetonated WMD in the U.S. and we knew where it came from?”

    I despair of the answer to this. I’ve often wondered what the government’s response would have been had the 9/11 hijackers botched their assignments (or had they been caught ahead of time).

    Personally, I think that the media, the Democrats, and our “allies” would have laughed their asses off over the possibility that a handful of would-be terrorists thought they could really pull off such a stunt and kill thousands of Americans. Any response from the administration would have been impossible in such a political environment, and Al Qaeda would have gone back to an occasional item on Page A-22 of the New York Times. Until, of course, their next attack, better planned and bigger than 9/11, and not botched, went off, and tens of thousands of Americans died, and President Bush would have been blamed for failing to stop it.

  9. JRM Says:

    I think the best possibility is for Bush to come out with something like: “The recent letter from President Ahmedinejad concludes with the threat sent to the Byzantine and Sassanid emperors by the Prophet in the seventh century, although the Iranian translators dis not translate that section. In the seventh century, that threat was followed by invasion and carnage, and can best be construed as an open declaration of war. If any WMD attack on the US takes place, we shall automatically assume that it follows from that Iranian declaration of war and act accordingly.”

    This will sow dissention among the Iranians, and make at least some of them understand that it is in their interest to prevent such attacks. If the millenialists win, well, they were warned.

  10. Andrew P Says:

    This post makes a very good point – if we have to wait for proof of who did it, we will never strike back since we will never have conclusive proof. We simply have to make a good list of who might have done it, cross off any names that have too much retailiatory power to hit (Rusia, China, etc.), and then nuke everyone left on the list. Right now Iran can’t be sure that the US wouldn’t do this.

    This raises another issue. What if the nuke strike IS attributed, but to someone we can’t strike back against. This goes for Israel too.

  11. Andrew P Says:

    If I were running Iran and wanted to use a nuke here is what I would do. Arrange for Hezbollah to buy the nuke directly from North Korea. Have Hexbollah publicly announce that they bought nukes from the DPRK (to protect Iran from retailiation), and then use it in one of their rockets. North Korea is too far away for Israel to hit, although the US can hit it on Israel’s behalf. But if the DPRK has successfully tested a few of its longest range ICBMs before doing this, the US will have to think twice before launching. Will we be willing to lose a few cities to retailiate on behalf of Israel? And since Hezbollah has the biggest reach worldwide of any terrorist group, and certainly has many more sleeper cells in the US than Al Qaeda ever had, will we do anything at all once they become a nuclear power?

  12. Jerry in Detroit Says:

    Let’s see. We’d trade New York for getting the U.N. out of the U.S. Can we get back to you on this?

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