Friday, October 13, 2006

Deterrence logic 
Charles Krauthammer is calling for making U.S. nuclear deterrence policy against North Korea absolutely explicit: Seeing as there is no other nuclear power so reckless in its nuclear proliferation, the United States will consider any mystery nuke terror attack against any U.S. ally as having its origin in North Korea, and any such attack will trigger a full nuclear retaliatory strike on North Korea.

Krauthammer further goes on to argue that such a policy would collapse if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, since the origin of any nuclear terror attack would not be clear.

My argument is two-sided: On the one hand, I don't believe such a policy collapses if Iran becomes a nuclear power. On the other hand, I don't believe the clarity of the Kennedy policy w/r/t missiles based in Cuba is as easy to achieve as Krauthammer implies.

First of all, a little game theory: Suppose Iran becomes a nuclear power. Suppose further, that the United States publicly declares that any nuclear attack by any rogue terror group will be considered the work of a North Korean/Iranian axis, and as such will trigger a massive, devastating nuclear strike on both Iran and North Korea together.

Now take a look at the risk matrices available to both countries at that point: Both countries have no less a deterrent to nuclear proliferation than they did before. The deterrent is exactly the same as it was prior to Iran becoming a nuclear power.

But more than that -- both countries have to consider the risk that the OTHER guy is a complete nutjob who will get all of them destroyed.

Yes, it is true that Iran could have motives pure as the driven snow, but if North Korea sells nukes to Al Qaeda for cash, and Al Qaeda uses it against, say Australia, millions of innocent Iranian citizens will transformed in an instant into charcoal dust.

Yes, well, nobody ever said life was fair.

But both rogue regimes now have an entirely new risk calculus to consider: By becoming members of the nuclear club, their prestige may grow locally (though I think this is really just an illusion), but their level of risk increases exponentially. Unless each is absolutely sure about the good intentions and basic rationality of the other, then they now have a powerful incentive opt-out of the collective retaliation policy to give up their nuclear programs in a verifiable way - a massive iteration of the classic "prisoner's dilemma."

Depending on how nutty one is perceived by the other, the West may even be able to extract additional concessions in a last-ditch attempt by the defecting party to avoid being dragged into a likely nuclear scenario against their interests.

If the U.S. is willing to be bold and clear, then, it is possible for North Korea and Iran's nuclear status to backfire on them.

That said, at the lower end of the nuclear first-strike spectrum, there's a certain murkiness to the issue. Would a dirty-bomb attack be sufficient to trigger the nuclear devastation of North Korea?

Well, if the radioactive isotopes used in the attack can be traced back to the Norks, then it's a no brainer. But a lot of countries have radioactive materials that could be used in a nuclear attack. And remember that U.S. policy is rather heavily hinged on the deteriorating actuarial chances of one man - President Musharrif of Pakistan. If he should fall, then Pakistan's nuclear reliability comes seriously into question.

Does the U.S. then make a policy that Pakistan shall also fall under the massive retaliation policy? And in any event, does Saudi Arabia - which would LOVE to see Iran completely neutered - now have a perverse incentive to trigger a nuclear response by staging a dirty bomb attack and then seeing that it's blamed on the Iranians?

How about Sunni Arabs? The only people they hate more than the U.S. is the Iranians. Can a radical death-obsessed Sunni cult frame the Iranians?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Splash, out


Neither plan would work if there is a democrat in the White House. They would launch a nuclear stike on Iceland by mistake or through stupidity.
By making such a statement and being credible about it--which I might argue is not the case when Bush 41 staffer memoirs came out indicating they wouldn't have used those weapons even though threatening specifically--you also have another problem:

You've now made a very very powerful incentive for some actor who wouldn't mind taking Iran/DPRK out of the picture by expending a nuke without attribution on US interests.

Deterrence logic *has* to be thought through more than one game move. This idea isn't.
Yes, that's what I was getting at in the end of the post. An automatic trigger response is not really workable once Iran becomes a nuclear power, but not for the reasons Krauthammer sets forth.
I like the idea of making the bad guys accountable for each other. Why should we expend all of our efforts at reining in every shithead on the planet? This would be more like the Cold War, when the major actors kept a lid on the minor players out of fear of provoking a major conflict. At least the proliferators would have (I assume!) some interest in keeping their non-state proxies on a shorter leash.

Regimes interested in our destruction have formed a loose alliance against us. Why shouldn't we hold them to the commitment they have made when they crossed that line? It's not like we're going to nuke France as a step in the liability chain.

I like how the idea of a proxy acting to frame a proliferating state came right around to the U.S. doing it. That didn't take long.
Yup, on second reading I grokked it.

"There's always some SOB who hasn't got the word..."
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