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Rogue States and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Are rogue states with weapons of mass destruction the biggest threat to the United States?

October 24, 2002

Are rogue states with weapons of mass destruction the biggest threat to the United States?

For decades, policy experts in Washington and other capitals around the world who worried about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could not get anyone to pay attention. That changed after September 11. True, the al Qaeda terrorists used hijacked U.S. airliners to murder more than 3,000 Americans.

And as captured videotapes and confessions prove, al Qaeda sought to obtain deadly weapons of mass destruction. However, today the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.

The Bush Administration wants to use military force in pre-emptive wars against countries like Iraq to prevent them obtaining nuclear, biological and chemical weapons — or to destroy the ones that they have.

There's just one problem with the new conventional wisdom about the threat of weapons of mass destruction: It doesn't make sense.

The most common scenarios for the use of weapons of mass destruction by "rogue states" are not very plausible, if you assume that the rogue states are at least a bit rational.

Consider the notion that an evil dictator might secretly blow up part of a major city like New York or Washington with a "suitcase nuclear bomb," planted by his agents or allied terrorists.

Why would he do it? If he were connected to the attack, his regime, and possibly his life, would quickly come to an end. Why would he do it secretly, without taking credit for it?

To create chaos? The United States and similar countries would continue to function, even if one or two cities were destroyed. Indeed, they would become more united.

Plagues could do far more to an enemy population than bombs, anthrax attacks or nerve gas attacks, which are localized in their effect.

But no state is going to release a deadly virus or bacterium that could also destroy its own population — and a massive campaign of inoculation would remove the element of surprise.

The truth is that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are more useful in defense, deterring would-be invaders, than they are in offensive campaigns or in coercive diplomacy.

Imagine for a moment that the Land of Oz, an oil-rich country, is threatened by two neighboring states, Utopia and Eden. Utopia has nuclear weapons, but no army. Eden has a huge army, but no nuclear weapons.

The General Staff of Oz will be much more worried about Eden — whose armies could invade it and occupy it — than about Utopia, whose nuclear bluff easily can be called.

History proves that nuclear weapons supplement conventional forces. But they do not replace them. Japan did not surrender only because the United States dropped atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The United States was also poised to invade. If there had been no U.S. invasion force nearby, Japan might have fought on, as it had done in previous years, when conventional bombing destroyed many of its cities.

During the Cold War, the United States stationed an enormous army in Europe, in addition to pointing nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union. The nuclear threat, by itself, was not enough to prove America's commitment to Europe's defense.

It was possible that a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would have been limited to conventional forces, by tacit agreement on both sides. Indeed, many Europeans feared that the superpowers would fight in the ruins of Europe, while leaving one another's homelands untouched.

The Bush Administration claims that the doctrine of deterrence is obsolete. The evidence, however, points in a different direction. The United States, Britain and France — all nuclear powers — have fought wars, including major wars in Indochina and Korea, without ever using nuclear weapons against their non-nuclear enemies.

Israel, an unofficial nuclear power, has repeatedly fought conventional wars with neighbors, also without resorting to nuclear weapons. The proliferation of nuclear weapons does not increase the danger that wars will escalate into nuclear exchanges. It makes it less likely.

If India and Pakistan go to war, now that both sides have nukes, they are likely to limit their confrontation to clashes between their armies and to forego city-vaporizing nuclear exchanges (with the caveat that small-yield nuclear bombs or other weapons of mass destruction like gas or chemical weapons might be used to disable enemy troops or infrastructure).

Weapons of mass destruction do not go off by themselves. Governments that use them must think that they would benefit from them, if they are rational at all.

For this reason, those who exaggerate the danger of weapons of mass destruction fall back on the possibility of a dictator who is "a madman." They're right — any tyrant who would use weapons of mass destruction, in the certain knowledge of retaliation or annihilation, would have to be crazy.

But even a mad dictator must act through a chain of command. His bodyguards or military officers are unlikely to want to follow the lunatic-in-chief into oblivion.

Like the Praetorian Guard that periodically assassinated insane Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero, at least some of the officers between the tyrant and the weapon would have an incentive to disobey orders — or arrest or kill their leader.

Fortunately for the world in an era of mass destruction, the soldiers in dangerous regimes are often evil. But they are seldom crazy.