The Earthling

Earthling Attacked!

All my railing against national missile defense—seven Slate columns in 14 months—has finally paid off. Last week I was attacked by a prominent conservative—Rich Lowry, editor of National Review and increasingly common talking head (PBS NewsHour, even). Lowry takes me to task not just for missile-defense-related confusion but for general arrogance (at least, assuming you impute some irony to Lowry’s line, “Bow down before the incisive intellect of Robert Wright!”).

Lowry’s essay is a valuable specimen—state-of-the-art pro-missile-defense rhetoric. It is about as good as anything George Will or Charles Krauthammer or William Safire has written on the subject lately. So, how good is that? 

Lowry assigns various degrees of ridicule to various arguments I make, but the argument that qualifies as “truly ridiculous” is the “open door” analogy. In my last column, I stressed (again) that to Saddam Hussein, anonymously sneaking a nuke into the United States in a suitcase is preferable to delivering a nuke via missile since the missile, by betraying its point of origin, would ensure retaliation. So long as the suitcase-bomb option is the preferred alternative, I said, pursuing a missile-defense program is like trying to prevent burglary by locking your windows while leaving your door open.

Lowry scoffs at the notion that the suitcase bomb “constitutes an ‘open door’ neglected by proponents of missile defense. … Does Wright think the U.S. has no counter-terrorist operations or programs? The fact is, the United States spends billions every year trying to prevent just such an attack from happening.” He rests his case.

Let’s examine the “open door” analogy with somewhat greater care. Its validity rests on the following premise: that, of the two ways to get a nuke detonated in the United States, the suitcase option is cheaper, easier, and safer than the missile option. Lowry points out that the United States spends money trying to make the suitcase option less cheap, easy, and safe. Undeniably true. But for purposes of the argument I’m making, that is not the question. The question is whether the United States has succeeded to the point where the missile option is on balance the cheaper and easier and safer of the two. I’ve never heard anyone on either side of the debate claim that the answer is yes. But who knows? Maybe Lowry will, now that he understands what the question is.

Lowry attributes to me the belief that missile defense is a transparently bad idea, something only fools would contemplate. He writes, “So, there! Bow down before the incisive intellect of Robert Wright! Never again entertain the idea of missile defense because it has been proven unnecessary, just as surely as gorillas practice polygamy and chimps scratch their asses.” (Lowry is here deftly alluding to my book The Moral Animal, which, he claims, demonstrates that I derive my morality “at least in part, from monkeys.” Hey, so does your mother.)

But actually, my big complaint has never been that missile defense is a transparently bad idea. I think it’s an opaquely bad idea. The issue is complex enough that you have to grapple earnestly with a number of questions before the overall badness shines through. My big complaint, rather, is that missile-defense boosters rarely grapple. They either ignore criticisms entirely (President Bush’s strategy) or shrug them off with egregiously sloppy logic (I won’t mention any names).

Still, a couple of things must be said in Lowry’s favor. First, he reads my stuff. I like that in a man! Second, he responds to my stuff. Most notably, in his column he ventured an answer to the question I’ve been asking for more than a year: Why wouldn’t old-fashioned nuclear deterrence work against Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il, just as it worked against Soviet dictators? After all, neither of these men seems eager to die.

Lowry’s answer: “Deterrence seems to have worked against the Soviets in the Cold War, partly because we clearly understood what motivated them. As Thucydides said, wars are fought over ‘interest, fear, and honor.’ How can we be certain, for instance, about what constitutes honor for Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il?”

Actually, it’s not obvious that we had clearer insight into Leonid Brezhnev’s psyche than we have into Saddam Hussein’s. Both men fall into the mysterious “unelected leaders who don’t hold press conferences” category. Is Lowry making a cultural argument—that in Asian and Islamic societies people are more willing to die for honor than in European societies? Conceivably. After all, Japan had kamikaze pilots, and Islamic radicals perform suicide bombings. 

But have you ever noticed how suicide bombers are always people you’ve never heard of? In the East as in the West, political leaders are the people who encourage making the ultimate sacrifice, not the people who actually make it.

I’m glad that Lowry has acknowledged, at least implicitly, what the Bush administration has yet to acknowledge: People who believed in nuclear deterrence during the Cold War but say it won’t work with “rogue states” must posit some truly relevant difference between the Cold War and the current situation, such as a qualitative difference between current rogue dictators and past Soviet dictators.

Still, now that Lowry and I are engaged in this friendly dialogue, I’d ask him to be clearer about this difference: Is he indeed saying that European people can be counted on to comply with Western notions of rationality, but people from Asian or Islamic cultures can’t be? If he’s not saying that, then why is he not willing to attribute to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il the generically human intense aversion to death that we attributed to a series of Soviet leaders, whether or not we knew much about their inner lives?

While Lowry is pondering this question, I’ll go ahead and start my next column, which will address two other substantive points raised in Lowry’s critique: the familiar “missiles for bluffing” argument and the somewhat fresher “Is mutual destruction truly assured?” question.