Column for July 9, 2006

Do we need a little more MAD?

Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD. The idea is simple. If you have a nuclear bomb and I have a nuclear bomb, you’d better not try to use yours on me or I’ll fire mine at you, and we’ll both be dead. World ends. Game over.

For a good chunk of the last half of the last century, mutual assured destruction was the Cold War nuclear-deterrence strategy of choice. For at least a generation, it rocket-fueled an ever escalating arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and kept the rest of us endlessly teetering on the brink of — but never quite falling into — nuclear Armageddon. If you listen to some old soldiers, MAD is one of the reasons we are still around to debate the issue in the 21st century.

When I was younger and smarter, I thought the theory of mutual assured destruction was as mad as its acronym, just another lame excuse for the boys with guns on both sides to gobble up bigger and bigger shares of their country’s budgets in order to buy newer and fancier toys to one-up whatever even newer, fancier, shinier stuff the other side had. I still believe that’s true, but I’m no longer convinced that the theory behind mutual assured destruction isn’t…well, mad in a practical way.

Consider. We now live in a single superpower world. Do you feel any safer?

Even if George W. wasn’t the one sitting in the White House with Dick Cheney’s notoriously itchy trigger finger twitching on the nuclear button — Just two more years, praise God, Allah and the 22nd Amendment — we would still have to face the fact the collapse of the Soviet empire changed the nature of geopolitical warfare.

On the one hand, the Americans have the fire power to bomb Afghanistan back into the stone age and the military might to invade and occupy Iraq. There is no countervailing country, bloc or moral authority — we saw how effective the UN and world opinion was in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion — to make Bush et al think twice before they go marching as to war. With their endless supply of satellite-guided smart bombs that they can drop from jets so high in the sky conventional anti-aircraft from most of the nations they threaten can’t touch them — there is probably no conventional war the Americans cannot win.

On the other hand, there is no such thing as conventional warfare anymore.

And so long as the Americans persist in unilaterally employing their military superiority, they will only invite the al Qaedas of this world to respond, not in kind but with the kind of moving-target guerilla attack the most powerful nation on earth can never fully anticipate or defend against. In other words, in this new world order, the United States may win the conventional war but it will never keep the peace for long.

The United States is not the only country trapped in this conundrum.

These days the need for a little more MAD is nowhere more evident than in the Middle East where the militarily superior Israeli government has used the kidnapping of one of its soldiers by Palestinian militiamen as an excuse to punish an entire population.

The Israelis can dispatch F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, navy gunboats, Merkava tanks, thousands of troops and more bulldozers into Gaza to blow up bridges, disable power plants, level government buildings, destroy orchards, arrest elected officials and, incidentally, kill innocent civilians because… well, because they can.

Who’s going to stop them? Certainly not the pitiably ill-armed Palestinians, whose response weapons-of-necessity consist of little more than a few pathetic, homemade, unguided Qassam missiles. No wonder they resort to suicide bombers and soldier kidnapping. But in the end, no army in the world, no matter how powerful, can finally defeat an enemy that believes they have nothing to lose.

When you see what the Israelis — who also, it is worth noting, possess nuclear weapons — have done to the Palestinians in Gaza in the past few weeks, you begin to understand why the Iranians might want a nuclear weapon or two of their own. Or why the North Koreans, already singled out by the belligerents in the Bush administration as part of the axis of evil, might not be so keen to abandon their own nuclear program just because the rest of us want them to.

Perhaps MAD is not quite so mad after all.

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