Evidence of my prescience surfaces with alarming infrequency, so when it does crop up I make the most of it. Here goes.
In a column posted two days ago, I warned that incoming Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might try to impede the rapprochement with North Korea started by the Clinton administration. Why? Because, being hell-bent on convincing us of the merits of a missile defense system, he needs to be able to point to isolated, belligerent regimes that are developing long-range missiles.
Lo and behold, I turn to my New York Times this morning and find the following lead paragraph in a front-page story by Steven Lee Myers:
“Donald Rumsfeld, the prospective secretary of defense, called today for a sweeping revision of the nation’s deterrence strategy and weaponry, advocating increases in military spending, the deployment of a national missile defense and a tougher stand toward China and North Korea.”
But enough about me. In arguing for missile defense at his confirmation hearing yesterday, Rumsfeld made a point that is worth exploring.
He was responding to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who had just efficiently debunked the standard rationale for missile defense—to ward off nuclear missiles from “rogue states.” Levin noted that a) the threat of nuclear retaliation would seem to be enough to deter even a “terrorist state” from launching a strike against the United States; and b) in any event, there are easier ways for a terrorist state to mess with the United States. (Much better to sneak a nuke across the Mexican border in a van—”hide it in a bale of marijuana,” as John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists has put it—than to use a ballistic missile and hence put a return address on the nuke.)
Here is Rumsfeld’s basic rejoinder to Levin: OK, but even if you’re right, remember that a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile can “work without being fired.” For example: suppose Saddam Hussein had possessed such a missile during the Persian Gulf War. Then, says Rumsfeld, we couldn’t have mustered the anti-Iraq coalition, because our allies would have feared putting “themselves at risk to a nuclear weapon.”
Now, first of all, in that very war Saddam showed that even “rogue states” are amenable to the logic of deterrence. Secretary of State James Baker, using code language, warned that if Iraq pulled out its chemical weapons, the United States might pull out its nukes. The threat seems to have worked.
Rumsfeld might reply that, notwithstanding the manifestly powerful logic of deterrence, allies could still get cold feet, since even the perception of a quite small threat of nuclear attack is a very scary thing. And he might be right. But if so, then how much is a missile defense system going to help? After all, not even supporters of such a system—which by definition cannot be tested under real-world conditions, and which can be fooled via well-known techniques—claim that it would have anywhere near a 100 percent chance of working. So the perception of a quite small threat of a successful nuclear attack would still exist.
That Rumsfeld is already trying to change the rationale for missile defense is a good sign. He seems to be conceding that the standard rationale—that “rogue states” might actually lob a nuclear missile toward the United States—has some holes in it. (Hey—that’s another all-too-rare example of Earthling vindication!)
But if Rumsfeld is going to shift the argument in mid-debate, he’d better be prepared to follow his new train of logic. A 60-percent-effective missile defense might make sense if the purpose were to actually fend off incoming missiles. But when you’re talking about our allies—or for that matter us—being deterred from action by the mere threat of a nuclear attack, then 60 percent won’t do. In the psychology of paralyzing fear, a small but appreciable threat of massive destruction is a small but appreciable threat of massive destruction. If our allies are worried that there’s a 5 percent chance of London or Paris going up in flames, it won’t help to say, “Actually the threat is only 2 percent.”
In his testimony yesterday, Rumsfeld said, “You know, this isn’t the old Star Wars idea of a shield that would keep everything off of everyone in the world.” But, actually, if the purpose of missile defense is to keep a large alliance from crumbling under the fear of nuclear attack, anything that falls much short of that “old Star Wars idea” just isn’t going to work.
So far, the arguments in favor of missile defense have demonstrated a fairly consistent sloppiness. Rumsfeld—and fellow missile defense booster Dick Cheney—are obviously men who pride themselves on their tough analytical skills (and they obviously don’t credit their opponents with same). OK, fine—let’s see some evidence of hard, clear thinking. It’s time for a serious debate on national missile defense to begin. The ball is in their court.