Missile Defense: A Third Strike

This column struck first. Charles Krauthammer struck back. The mutually assured deconstruction goes on. 

In the Washington Post last week, columnist Charles Krauthammer took issue with my earlier column expressing skepticism about President Bush’s plans for missile defense. What follows is my response to Krauthammer.

Dear Charles:

Thank you for calling me “too bright” to make one particular argument against missile defense, although I am apparently not bright enough to avoid several others.

I hope I am bright enough to summarize your argument accurately. You make two points: 1) Regarding the continued importance of “mutually assured destruction,” you note that the risk of a Russian nuclear attack on the United States is far smaller than it was during the Cold War. And 2) regarding the possibility of a “suitcase bomb” (shorthand for various delivery methods other than intercontinental missiles), you say that the continued existence of one risk is no reason to deny ourselves protection from another.

You are right of course that a Russian nuclear attack on the United States was always unlikely (a point your side did not emphasize, to say the least, during the first missile-defense debate of the 1980s) and is even more unlikely now. But the logic of mutually assured destruction does not allow for mid-course adjustments. MAD is either/or: Either we need it or we don’t.

Is MAD passé? If so, what justification is there for maintaining our nuclear arsenal at all? Since you find the idea of a “massive, genocidal and unprovoked” first strike by Russia against the United States “wacky,” I presume you find the idea of a similar first strike by the United States against Russia even wackier. We’ll have missile defense to protect us against attacks from “rogue states” (and a more-than-adequate ability to punish one without going nuclear).

The other Cold War first-use possibility was in response to a Russian non-nuclear attack on Western Europe. Surely that risk is also dramatically lower than during the Cold War—both the risk that the Russians would attempt it and the risk that their enfeebled army could succeed. For that matter, the credibility of our threat to commit suicide by nuclear holocaust if the Russians invaded Europe is also negligible by now.

So, are you prepared to see the United States unilaterally give up our ability to launch a devastating nuclear attack on Russia (or China)? Is the risk of a first strike against us so farcically small that we don’t need to worry about it at all? Are you prepared to live in a world where the Russians can destroy us but we cannot destroy them? Krauthammer the unilateral disarmer?

Unilateral disarmament would solve the “second strike” problem I wrote about. The Russians would not need to worry that an American first strike would leave them unable to respond effectively, and therefore we would not need to worry that pressure to “use ‘em or lose ‘em” will increase their incentive, however slight, to use ‘em. But if you are not prepared to give up America’s first-strike ability, the conundrum of MAD still holds: Anything that reduces our vulnerability to a second strike actually increases our vulnerability to a first strike.

President Bush has explicitly told the Russians that he does not aspire to negate their nuclear capability. And nobody seriously believes that strategic defense can do that anyway. My point was that if strategic defense cannot protect us from a first strike by a grown-up nuclear power, it had better not be good enough to protect us from a second strike. So far, I will admit, the danger of such a system being too good does not seem to be a problem.

Regarding the suitcase bomb problem, you are of course right that it makes no sense to leave yourself unprotected against one risk just because there are other risks you can’t protect yourself against. But the question of a suitcase bomb versus a nuclear missile is not one of different risks but of different versions of the same risk. The fact that your house may burn down is no reason not to lock your door against burglars. However, locking the door really is close to pointless when there’s a wide-open window right next to it. The suitcase bomb problem is more like the second situation: The existence of an alternative means that even a successful missile defense would just shift the risk, not reduce it.

This would not be true if, as you suggest, the suitcase bomb were a lot harder for a hostile foreign leader to pull off. You compare the complexity of sneaking a nuclear weapon past U.S. Customs versus the ease of pushing a button to launch a missile from the comfort of your own palace. But this misses the point. Presumably the suitcase option also involves pushing a button, or could. The proper comparison is smuggling a bomb in a suitcase versus building an intercontinental ballistic missile system from scratch. There are pros and cons of both options, but it is far from obvious that any sensible insane Third World dictator would opt for the missile (and give up in despair if that option were foreclosed).

Charles, you are too bright not to agree completely with all these points.

Your friend,