The Earthling

Legalize Assassination!

Are Americans too squeamish to vaporize Baghdad, should the need arise? This prospect has been on the mind of National Review editor Rich Lowry lately. It’s one reason he thinks old-fashioned deterrence—mutually assured destruction—can’t be counted on to keep us safe from any nuke-tipped missiles wielded by “rogue states.”  

Lowry raised the issue in a column advocating national missile defense and critiquing my own critique of missile defense. He wrote: “It is not necessarily a certainty that the U.S. would be willing to make such a [retaliatory] strike, and as long as there is the barest hint of uncertainty about this, an attack on the U.S. might not be an act of suicidal madness.”

Before proceeding to the main issue—whether America would indeed pull the trigger—note the bizarre analysis in which Lowry embeds it. He says that a nuclear attack on the United States wouldn’t necessarily be crazy so long as there were “the barest hint of uncertainty” about American retaliation. So, if Saddam Hussein decides that the chances of an attack on America leading to his death have dropped from 100 percent to 98 percent, then it wouldn’t be crazy for him to attack? I hold even the most roguish dictators to a higher standard of rationality than that.

Certainly during the Cold War, when deterrence was a consensus doctrine, nobody considered a 100-percent chance of retaliation a prerequisite for continued peace. The idea was that, given the intense human fear of death, any large chance of its ensuing—90 percent, 80 percent—has a reliably inhibiting effect. 

Still, during the Cold War we tried to keep the chances of successful retaliation pretty high. (That was the idea behind the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty’s ban on missile defense.) And I agree that we wouldn’t want them to drop too low. Is there really a danger of that?

Not much of one. Lowry has presumably never lived in a nation with a true war mentality. Neither have I, but I guarantee you that if an Iraqi missile took out mid-town Manhattan, you would see a recalibration of America’s bourgeois moral sensibilities. Overnight, the nation would move toward a World-War-II mindset, which countenanced the wholesale slaughter of civilians in various cities, not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Besides, even if America balked at nuclear retaliation, does Lowry think there’s any chance that America’s military would rest before Saddam Hussein were either dead or in prison awaiting trial? Does Lowry think Hussein could possibly think that?

If anyone does suffer from that illusion, there’s an easy fix. The assassination of foreign leaders is now banned by executive order. Maybe that law needs a loophole: National political and military leaders whose nations launch a nuclear strike against any other nation can legally be assassinated via covert American action. And America is free to use any tools, ranging from Oswald-type marksmanship to cruise missiles to special-forces helicopters descending on country villas to bunker-busting bombs. And if circumstances don’t permit a clean kill, and dozens or hundreds or even thousands of innocent people must die—well, nobody ever said the deterrence business isn’t messy.

Such a law may strike some people as extreme. But compared to what? Compared to spending a jillion dollars on a missile shield that not only may not work, but in various ways may actually increase the chances of nuclear war? (Click here to read a “Foreigners” column in favor of legalizing assassination.)

Of the several pro-missile-defense points raised in Lowry’s column, there’s only one that I haven’t addressed either above or in my previous reply: He worries that a rogue state could use nuclear missiles without actually launching them. Thus, Saddam Hussein’s mere possession of nukes could have intimidated the United States into not intervening in Kuwait. This scenario first got prominent airplay months ago, when Donald Rumsfeld trotted it out after missile-defense critics started asking why old-fashioned deterrence wouldn’t work against the Saddam Husseins of the world.

First, let’s spell out the logic of Rumsfeld’s repositioning for the benefit of the American taxpayer. When the Bush administration took office, it was asking you for tons of money to build a missile shield that could supposedly save your life. Now, as doubts grow about whether it is really needed for that purpose, the Bush administration is asking you for tons of money to save some future Kuwait from foreign occupation. (And this is the administration that doesn’t think Americans will tolerate paying enough taxes to ensure Social Security’s solvency.)  

Second, whether all that money really would help the Kuwaits of the world—by freeing America to intervene when and where it chooses, regardless of whose nukes were pointing at it—is doubtful. Let’s grant Lowry’s premise—that for some reason Hussein’s threat to nuke us would carry great credibility, so Americans would fear becoming toast if U.S. troops aided Kuwait. Would missile defense really change that calculus much?

Remember, no one is claiming that a missile shield would work with anything like 100 percent reliability. So, even if you throw a shield into the Kuwait scenario, Americans would be pondering an appreciable, even if much-reduced, risk of losing a city or two. If the political premise of American military strategy in both Kuwait and Kosovo is sound—that Americans wouldn’t tolerate several thousand military deaths in a non-essential intervention—then I doubt they’d tolerate, say, a five percent chance of losing a million civilians; not to save a country whose name most Americans probably couldn’t spell before Iraq invaded it.

It may be possible to imagine an intervention so vital to American interests that we’d take that risk, yet not so vital that we’d have taken the risk in the absence of missile defense. But I’d at least like to hear Lowry list some examples. And I’m skeptical that there are many.

I don’t deny that the possession of nukes would probably give a dictator more leeway in world affairs, or that, specifically, great powers might be less inclined to confront such a dictator. I’m just doubting that missile defense would do much, if anything, to change that. So, Lowry is deploying one of his patented non sequiturs when he writes, “If nuclear-armed ICBMs are as useless to rogue states as Wright portrays them—because their only possible use can be to prompt the U.S. to annihilate the country in question—why are rogue nations pursuing them in the first place?” Maybe they’re pursuing them because the mere possession of nukes does give a second-tier nation more stature and elbow room—whether or not the United States builds a missile shield.

That nukes in the hands of rapacious dictators are in this sense bad news is one reason we should work hard to slow nuclear proliferation—for example, by getting a verifiable nonproliferation deal with North Korea. The Bush administration, under political pressure, has finally started at least going through the motions of seeking such a deal. Still, the administration’s obvious lack of heartfelt interest hints at one of the dangers of missile defense: Its supporters often think of it as an alternative to nonproliferation, when in fact it isn’t nearly an adequate substitute. There is a difference between A) a world of rapid nuclear proliferation and rapid missile-shield construction; and B) a world that doesn’t have either. And B) features longer life expectancy.

This may be the scariest single thing about missile defense (and there’s a lot of competition for that title): It could give some American political leaders the illusion of insulation from world problems. And the next few decades, which will bring a spate of threats that can be addressed only through concerted international action, is no time for the world’s leading nation to feel comfortably numb.