Tuesday, April 18, 2006

It's a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World... or the MAD cHatter

Much is being made of whether the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would still work with a world of nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea. Ron Jacobs at counterpunch, James Robbins at National Review On-line, Slavoj Zizek at In These Times, and Belle Waring at Crooked Timber all weigh in on the question.

With the Soviet Union and China, the line goes, we could be assured that they wouldn't if we didn't and we wouldn't if they didn't. But it is different with these rogue states. I mean, they're crazy.

Surely the "mad mullahs" caricature heard from alarmist voices on the right is a cartoon. The idea that "'those people' are not rational and since we see them supporting suicide bombers, why would suicide nuclear bombers be any different" is surely flawed. But at the same time, the logic that undergirded MAD is different in this case than it was in the Cold War. There seem to be two main senses in which the current context is different.

1) The US, USSR, and China were all in the same league with respect to international reach, economic security, and military power (until the Soviet Union collapsed, of course). But with Iran and North Korea, you walk up to the table with an imbalance. You have a big guy/little guy situation and this does make for a different equation. When the odds are against you, or at least can be perceived to be against you, moves that would be utterly irrational in a normal situation can become quite rational. The odds of hitting the lottery are so slim that it is not a rational thing to do, but if all you have is a buck and you desperately need many more and it is the only possible way out of your jam, then the move becomes rational despite the long odds. The MAD doctrine as originally understood was based on a big guy vs. big guy, Cold War model of diplomacy, and that ain't what we've got here. Iran and especially North Korea may perceive themselves of having their backs against a wall while surrounded by bigger guys. This is not a good scenario for the stable stalemate that lay at the heart of MAD.

2) Bush's doctrine of premature Iraqulation threatens the basic premise underlying MAD from the other side. MAD only works if both sides perceive an immovable stalemate as the most likely, and most secure option. Each must believe that their arms will deter the other side as much as the other other side's cache will deter them. Both sides need to be completely comfortable in the belief that as long as they don't move, the other side won't either. There needs to be a universal perception of predictability. But the invasion of Iraq weakens this. Bush has shown himself, in word and deed, to be one who does not provide an absolutely dependable sense of necessary predictability. The saber rattling and undertaking major military action without complete planning gives evidence that one cannot rely on a stance of "war only when absolutely necessary." Just as the American right sees "mad mullahs" in Iran, the Iranian right sees "baffling Bushies" in Washington. The last thing you want, if you are looking for a stalemate, is nervous or unpredictable people with twitchy trigger fingers.

Add to both of these, the work that the Bush administration has done to undermine MAD: the push to develop the Star Wars missile defense shield and the bunker buster nukes both deny the central premise that we won't if you won't. The smaller sized packages make it more likely that we will use atomic means as strategic and not catastrophic weapons and the missile defense shield is designed to make it so that we can launch a nuclear strike on you with fear of reprisal. MAD was on the ropes before the announcements from Pyang Yang and Tehran.

This is not to predict a catastrophe. Iranians and North Koreans love their children, too. There is no doubt that having one of three "axis of evil" members invaded and occupied by US forces made nuclear arms seem all the more necessary for the other two evil-axees precisely for MAD-based reasons. If they have bomb, they won't be invaded -- they're playing for a tie. MAD is likely to hold -- not making it, of course, any less mad. The point, here, however, is that the foundation for this version of MAD is nowhere near as stable as it was during the Cold War, not because of mad mullahs, but for a number of other factors. And that makes me, at least, quite nervous.