The acronym MAD stands for mutual assured destruction. It is a strategic doctrine in which adversaries are deterred from attacking each other because the attacker is assured of being destroyed by the opponent’s reprisal. The conventional wisdom is that MAD prevented a Soviet-American “hot” war, allowing the U.S. to fight and ultimately win the Cold War. I incline to the conventional view – that deterrence through MAD worked – although there were several false alarms that could have precipitated a nuclear exchange. Fortunately, these never occurred during an international crisis when Soviet and/or American nuclear forces were on alert and more likely to interpret a false alarm as a real attack.
Properly speaking, when the Soviets began basing SS-4 IRBM’s with one megaton warheads in Cuba in 1962 – precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis – the MAD era had not yet begun. This is because the Soviets could not have survived an American first strike with sufficient strategic assets available to assure our destruction in a counterstrike. In contrast, the U.S. could absorb a Soviet first strike and still guarantee the destruction of the Soviet Union. This strategic imbalance was likely a factor in both the initiation of the crisis and its ultimate peaceful resolution.
Once the strategic conditions for MAD existed, the logic of MAD prevailed because neither the U.S. nor the Soviet leadership was at any time suicidal. Thus, both sides avoided provocative acts that could lead to open warfare between them for fear it would escalate to a nuclear exchange.
Deterrence theory and the (apparent) historical success of MAD have led most U.S. policymakers to claim that Iran is deterrable. In previous postings, I’ve expressed skepticism about this assumption. The central tenet of deterrence theory is that the actors are rational and not suicidal. The public utterances of numerous Iranian officials suggest that suicidal martyrdom may be state policy. If this is true then a credible threat to destroy Iran as a functioning state in a nuclear reprisal is not a deterrent.
In Playing Chicken: how Iran might win a nuclear war, I considered the possibility that Iranian leaders were employing the game theoretical strategy of only appearing to be suicidal religious maniacs:
The scenario of rational mullahs who read Schelling, Kahn, Rapaport, and other Cold War game theorists and are employing a strategy of studied irrationality does not, however, mean that the Iranian leaders are ultimately deterrable. For one thing, it should be pretty clear that the “rational” Iranians I’m positing have come up with an asymmetrical payoff matrix for their game of Chicken.
Although I was talking about Iran’s view of the U.S., it would apply to Iran’s view of Israel as well. Iran has not been deterred from fighting a proxy war with Israel by the latter’s possession of nuclear weapons. Why would Iranian leaders become more cautious once they have nuclear weapons as well? Unlike the Cold War-era Soviets, Iran recognizes no sphere of influence for its adversaries (principally Israel, but also the U.S. and Sunni Muslim states in the region). By definition, jihad is a philosophy that celebrates militant expansionism, making confrontations inevitable. Moreover, from the perspective of the Iranian leadership, decadent infidels can be expected to back down in any confrontation because they love life more than the jihadists fear death. Thus, provocative acts – bullying, if you will – are a desirable instrument of state policy once Iran has nuclear weapons. How many times will Iranian brinksmanship occur before a crisis escalates, by accident or miscalculation, to a nuclear war?
In The counterargument: don’t preempt against Iran, I explored the possibility that the U.S. could deploy a layered ballistic missile defense in time to nullify the Iranian threat:
At issue is, can the differing elements of ballistic missile defense (that is, detection, tracking, discrimination, command and control, and interception/kill percentage) be developed and deployed in time to counter the evolving Iranian threat? If the answer to that question is “yes” then it means that the Iranian calculus in its game of Chicken must be reevaluated. If you are indicating resolve by getting rid of your steering wheel or appearing to be suicidal, you can’t hope to win against an opponent driving an Abrams tank – even a consummately decadent one. Missile defense is the Abrams tank: the extent that missile defense creates uncertainty in the minds of Iranian leaders that a nuclear attack can succeed is the extent to which they will be deterred if they are, in fact, rational.
We know that some elements of ballistic missile defense are in place now, including Israel’s Arrow 2. In tests, U.S. and Israeli interceptors have separately managed over 80% kill rates. How this translates to performance against an actual Iranian attack in the near term is, however, purely speculative and can only be treated as a best-case scenario.
U.S. and Israeli policymakers differ in a significant particular: U.S. policymakers believe they can take the long view and contemplate a policy of containment, backed up by the threat of massive retaliation against an Iranian nuclear attack. This is because Iran is at least 5 years – probably more – away from having a ballistic missile that can reach the U.S. The current generation of Iranian ballistic missiles, which, ironically, is based on the Soviet SS-4, can reach Israel today. Thus, Israel will be under the nuclear gun very soon: the first Iranian weapons could appear late this year or early next year.
Despite the political resurrection of James Baker, who in a private conversation with a colleague during Bush-41’s term in office was reputed to have said, “fuck the Jews … they didn’t vote for us anyway”, there is no evidence that Bush-43 has adopted this as U.S. policy. Nevertheless, physical distance from the threat coupled with an almost religious devotion to deterrence theory have combined to create a U.S. policy that is functionally indistinguishable: it now appears that the U.S. will dither and allow Iran to go nuclear while, at the same time, preventing the Israelis from taking preemptive action.
The situation that Israel faces is grave. Iranian officials have claimed that Israel is a “one bomb” state – that a single nuclear weapon can “wipe it off the map.” Although an exaggeration, it is close enough to the truth to highlight the danger posed by Iranian nukes. Overall, the population of Israel is close to 7 million. Around 2.9 million live in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The Haifa metropolitan area adds close to another million. Taken together, those two areas have more than half of the Israeli population. A 20 megaton device targeted to maximize casualties in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area would flatten most buildings (overpressure of 5 PSI) 19 km from the blast hypocenter – an area greater than 1100 square kilometers; it would cause 3rd degree burns on a clear day to people in the open 39 kilometers away – an area of roughly 4700 square kilometers. Figure at least a million prompt fatalities with many, many more dying of their injuries in the succeeding hours and days. One 20 megaton “city buster” wouldn’t kill Israel outright but it would cut her heart out. At present, Iran has no practical delivery system for a city buster. However, its Soviet-derived missiles were designed to carry 1 megaton warheads. Given scaling effects (square the cube root of the yield), a pattern of seven 1 megaton warheads is roughly equivalent to one 20 megaton device in terms of area affected and people killed. (Note that a little under 400K people live in Tel Aviv proper, which covers an area of around 50 square kilometers. A 1 megaton warhead will destroy or severely damage even reinforced concrete structures out to 4.5 kilometers – roughly 64 square kilometers.)
The reader at this point may observe that it took the U.S. a little over seven years to go from a 20+ kiloton fission bomb to the first true fusion bomb in the megaton range. Why wouldn’t it take Iran a comparable period of time to develop megaton thermonukes? The answer is that in 1945, although a fusion bomb was deemed theoretically possible, no one knew how to make it. When the U.S. detonated its first thermonuke, it effectively proved to the Soviets that such a weapon was practical. Thus, the Soviets took around six years to explode their first fusion bomb and it was actually an advanced “dry bomb” that could be dropped from an aircraft, putting the Soviets technically ahead of the U.S.! Iranian weaponeers today start with a detailed knowledge of fusion devices far beyond that possessed by their Soviet and American counterparts from a half century ago. Given the delivery system they have in hand, expect that the Iranians will first deploy 1 megaton warheads on their ballistic missiles shortly after they have enough fissile Uranium-235 to manage it. The first such weapon could be available for use perhaps as early as the end of this year – almost certainly no later than sometime next year.
It’s easy to see that as few as ten 1 megaton warheads spread over the Tel Aviv and Haifa metropolitan areas would affect half of the population of Israel, killing a large percentage of same. How long to have ten? As I’ve previously posted, at full production, Iran will be able to turn out enough U-235 for a couple of dozen devices each year. A reasonable, worst-case estimate for Iran reaching this level of output would be 2009, making ten warheads possible as early as the end of 2008.
If a nuclear Iran is inevitable – I can hardly believe I’m actually writing this – is nuclear war in the Mid-East inevitable? Unless Israel carries out a preempt with tactical nukes, and if nothing else changes, I’m prepared to answer, “yes”. I don’t think Iran is directly deterrable and I don’t think that Israel’s ballistic missile defense, even augmented by U.S. anti-ballistic missile assets, will stop every Iranian nuke. Remember that it doesn’t take many 1 megaton devices getting through a missile defense to destroy Israel as a functioning state and, even if only one gets through, Israel will massively retaliate. The loss of life on the Iranian side would be catastrophic.
There is only one alternative I can see to the above scenario: if the Mullahs are willing to risk the annihilation of their own country in order further jihad, the Israelis have to up the ante. To put it in more explicit terms, 69 million Iranian Muslims is not a fair trade for 7 million Israeli Jews. Israel comprises 40% of the world Jewish population. Assuming around a billion Muslims (probably an underestimate), and treating all of Iran as Muslim (it’s close enough) then Iran represents only 6.9% of the world Muslim population. The MAD doctrine represents the endpoint of tit-for-tat in deterrence theory and tit-for-tat is a major component in a family of escalation scenarios. Employing tit-for-tat means that you injure your opponent to the same extent you are injured. Thus, if “tat” for the Jews is 7 million, then “tit” for the Muslims is at least 400 million. This translates to something like a 100:1 kill ratio of Muslims to Jews. Most estimates put the Israeli arsenal at 300 to 350 warheads, possibly more. Israel would therefore have enough warheads, assuming they could be delivered (I won’t go into probable delivery systems here), to eliminate Iran and still target the remaining 50 largest Muslim cities, making the 100:1 kill ratio technically feasible.
Translating the above into concrete policy means that the Israeli government first acknowledges that Israel has nuclear weapons. The government then states that, in the event ANY hostile Islamic nation attacks Israel with nuclear weapons, ALL Islamic nations without formal agreements (Egypt, for example, formally recognizes Israel) may be considered legitimate targets. I call this policy “MAD with a vengeance” or MADWAV (pronounce it mad-wave).
MADWAV puts the onus on the other Islamic countries to rein in Iran since they all face reprisal. The rationale is that the enablers of Iran are just as culpable as the Iranians should the latter attack. If Tel Aviv is hit, not only will Tehran be hit in reprisal but Kuala Lumpur or Riyadh may be hit as well. As long as the Islamic nations believe that only Iran will pay when the crazy mullahs commit nuclear martyrdom, they’ll sit on the sidelines and cheer the mullahs on. The Israelis need to tell the Islamic world there are no sidelines. Would MADWAV work? If it really induced other Islamic countries to pressure Iran to behave rationally then, yes, it just might work.
Let’s consider the negatives now. Israel is a representative democracy. Therefore, elements of the MADWAV policy would have to be publicly debated before it was adopted. Ideally the debate would occur before a general election. The first element would be for Israel to acknowledge what everyone already knows: that it has nuclear weapons. I discussed the need for a public discussion about Israel’s nuclear arsenal in A tactical leak:
[T]he Israeli debate over a nuclear preempt is going public at this stage precisely in order to for that option to prevail. Adherents of a conventional strike have essentially admitted that U.S. acquiescence is required. If such acquiescence isn’t guaranteed in advance, the only option remaining is a one-shot nuclear attack. I doubt that Ehud Olmert’s government has approved such a plan at this point but his government isn’t going to last much longer. The possibility of an intervening election campaign, therefore, has to figure into Israeli military planning. Somehow, the issue of a nuclear preempt needs to be discussed publicly but not officially in the upcoming campaign and tactical leaks to the foreign press might be the best way to do it.
Recall that prior to the aforementioned leak, in an interview on German television, Ehud Olmert said, “Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?” [emphasis mine]. Olmert was widely criticized by Israeli politicians for this remark. In response, Olmert claimed that he intended to say that the named nations were responsible members of the international community, not that they were nuclear powers - it was all a mistake, a misunderstanding. Given Olmert’s reputation as a political nincompoop, his statement probably was a thoughtless admission, clumsily handled, though it can’t be ruled out that Olmert’s statement was calculated to achieve precisely what I suggested above. In any case, even if it was a mistake, Olmert’s admission makes it easier for Israel to fess up to the existence of its nuclear arsenal at some point in the near future.
If, as it appears, Israel is working toward a major change in policy regarding its nuclear arsenal – that is, public acknowledgement – the first element in adopting MADWAV will be realized. Once this has happened, an articulation of the conventional MAD doctrine will easily be accepted as legitimate national policy. This is the point where expanding the doctrine to include a counterstrike against all “hostile” regimes becomes viable.
How would the Islamic world react to the declaration of MADWAV? Badly at first. Israel, however, is already an international pariah – things can hardly get worse than they already are. Besides, the reaction of the “Muslim street”, whatever that is, in other countries is irrelevant to Israel. Remember: the only thing that matters is how the governments of Muslim states react. If they have leverage with Iran and exercise it to make Iran more tractable, then the policy is successful. If not, Israel is no worse off than it was before.
Wouldn’t MADWAV cause non-nuclear Muslim nations to seek their own nuclear arsenals? The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Non-proliferation is a policy of interest only to those nations that already have nuclear weapons and want to maintain their exclusive club. In fact, all the evidence suggests that non-proliferation as an international goal is moribund and only the U.S. is trying, vainly, to resuscitate it. Israel’s strategic situation doesn’t get worse if there are 10 hostile Islamic nuclear powers instead of just one for the simple reason that you can only die once. While it is arguable that more hostile nuclear powers increase the possibility of accidental war, it is a shared risk. If anything proliferation might actually create more incentives for the Islamic world to come to some modus vivendi with Israel.
The most serious objection is that MADWAV is utterly immoral. At least with MAD, only the aggressor nation is attacked – MADWAV targets “innocent” nations. This moral objection will be central to the public debate in Israel, which is where it counts. The outcome of that debate will determine whether or not MADWAV is implemented. That European nations will strenuously object is a given but those objections will be treated in Israel with the seriousness they merit: zero. The U.S. reaction is more important to Israel but, since Israel would only entertain such a strategy because it is alone, even U.S. objections will be of minor significance.
I am not going to directly address arguments about moral behavior deriving from religious belief. As an agnostic, I’m really not equipped to address them well except to say that most religions permit or even encourage their adherents to defend themselves or seek retribution when attacked.
A more useful (that is, scientific and objective) way of looking at morality is to say that it is evolved behavior in social animals that promotes survival. To ground the definition in evolutionary biology, “morality” is a set of Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESS) that promotes group solidarity and reproductive success. The familiar Golden Rule, as stated by second century BCE Rabbi Hillel - “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” – is functionally an ESS and represents the cooperative half of Anatole Rapoport’s Tit-for-Tat strategy in iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. Throw in the idea of lex talionis and you have the retributive half. (Note to socio-biologists: Hillel’s formulation is an ESS since it doesn’t rule out a mixed retributive strategy – that is, you may require “an eye for an eye” but are not compelled to do so. If Tit-for-Tat randomizes its response to a defection – say it responds to a defection by defecting only 90% of the time – then it is a true ESS.) The concept of reciprocity embodied in the Golden Rule coupled with the concept of condign retribution embodied in “an eye for an eye” is seen across all human cultures. The very ubiquity of these moral behaviors validates their evolutionary basis.
Since all human beings are genetically programmed to understand equivalent punishment, it is easy to comprehend the basic morality of “hurting” Muslims as much as they are “hurting” Jews. The “morality” of MADWAV is premised on the observation that Islamic states, even nominally “moderate” ones, purvey a virulent strain of anti-Semitism that aids and abets the Iranian theocrats, and fosters terrorism directed at Israel. Only those Islamic nations that officially recognize Israel are “innocent”. Thus MADWAV embodies proportionate or equivalent retribution.
MADWAV is directed at the only group that counts: hostile Islamic states. Islam has not divorced itself from the retributive side of moral behavior to the extent that Western Humanism has. It is, therefore, likely that Muslims will understand and grudgingly respect the Israelis for adopting MADWAV. It is their response and not the Europeans’ that matters.
A second moral argument in favor of MADWAV is that, insofar as Jews are a distinct population, and there is a genetic basis for making this claim, then it is necessary for Israel’s Jews to punish lethal anti-Semitism to the fullest extent possible in order to protect Jews elsewhere in the world. In ID, take 3: more scourging, I discussed historian Paul Johnson’s idea that anti-Semitism is historically exceptional and ultimately self-destructive to those who engage in it. While I’m not prepared to accept his thesis in toto, his observation that anti-Semitism has a number of distinct characteristics seems irrefutable. It was, in fact, the persistent and intractable nature of anti-Semitism that was at least a partial motivation for the idea of a separate Jewish state. Hatred of the state of Israel is not, in and of itself, a manifestation of anti-Semitism but widespread use of anti-Semitic stereotypes and blood libels in the Islamic world to denounce Israel render it a distinction without a difference. The casual dissemination of anti-Semitic ideas and images in “moderate” Islamic states is now epidemic. Viewed in this context, Iran is not that far from the Muslim mainstream.
Following a nuclear war in which only Israel and Iran are destroyed, I can see massive celebrations erupting throughout the surviving Islamic world at the excision of the Jewish Cancer. That postwar world will be much more hostile to Jews everywhere, even those in supposedly tolerant countries. If deterrence – including the MADWAV variant – fails, then the world must know that there is a terrible price to pay for anti-Semitism. That postwar world won’t see dancing in the streets of the 50 largest Muslim cities because all of those cities will be radioactive slag heaps.
“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”