By the shadow of our hand
The Guardian describes an extraordinary manifesto authored "by five of the west's most senior military officers and strategists ... following discussions with active commanders and policymakers, many of whom are unable or unwilling to publicly air their views. It has been presented to the Pentagon in Washington and to Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, over the past 10 days. The proposals are likely to be discussed at a Nato summit in Bucharest in April." The gist of the proposal is that the West should stand ready to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear strike against "key threats" like "political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism" and "international terrorism, organised crime" which are on the brink of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
The Telegraph adds that the report "includes Lord Inge's comments on the controversy surrounding nuclear weapons policy: 'To tie our hands on first use or no first use removes a huge plank of deterrence.'" But to really grasp the rationale behind this proposed pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, it's important to read the manifesto's other demand: the reform of NATO. The Guardian article makes it clear that the West's defense alliance does not have the conventional power to resist the threats emerging against it.
To prevail, the generals call for an overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods, a new "directorate" of US, European and Nato leaders to respond rapidly to crises, and an end to EU "obstruction" of and rivalry with Nato. Among the most radical changes demanded are:
A shift from consensus decision-taking in Nato bodies to majority voting, meaning faster action through an end to national vetoes.
The abolition of national caveats in Nato operations of the kind that plague the Afghan campaign.
In reaching this conclusion, the five ex-senior commanders of NATO have essentially endorsed US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' criticism of the alliance as an underfunded, tentative force that is unable to even campaign effectively against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a subject discussed in an earlier Belmont Club post. NATO, having been shown to be unequal to the task of fighting in Afghanistan, is logically unable to meet a serious challenge in several simultaneous theaters. Having confessed to the emptiness of its conventional defense capability, the alliance must naturally turn to other means to restore its credibility.
This would not be the first time. Historically NATO relied upon American nuclear weapons to defend Europe against the post-World War 2 Soviet threat because a) it was cheap and b) Europe refused to re-arm; the French in particular fearing any resurgence of German strength. Nuclear deterrence was the consequence of conventional weakness, a technological way of compensating for the lack of normal forces.
The situation is being reprised today, not before the Soviet threat, but against an array of enemies against which NATO can mount no effective conventional response. GWB's Global War on Terror was an attempt to defeat Islamic extremism and other forms of transnational terrorism by conventional and intelligence warfare. Now, with the Bush administration reaching its end in Washington, there are probably grave doubts about whether there is enough political will to sustain this approach. It has become fashionable to criticize the Global War on Terror without bothering to consider the alternative. Now the alternative is before us. Given the catastrophic consequences of allowing terrorist or fanatical groups to acquire WMDs, it was only natural for the ex-NATO commanders to turn once again to nukes. By proposing the "pre-emptive" use of nuclear weapons, the proposal hopes to serve notice that any attempts by unnamed parties whose identities are an open secret will be met with nothing less than the ultimate weapon.
At first glance, the manifesto appears to mark a return to the policy of deterrence; a rueful admission that nothing but a revival of the balance of terror can now secure the West against forces that its publics are unwilling to mobilize against. That thought will ironically comfort many of those who lived through the long shadow of East versus West. After all, if deterrence kept the West safe against the Soviets for the long duration of the Cold War might not containment and the mutual balance of terror also safeguard it indefinitely against radical Islam?
But on closer examination the manifesto might not signal a return to deterrence at all. Deterrence is based on the idea of rational choice where actors are presumed to examine all the options before them and choose the one in which their preferences are best served. Deterrence worked because it made peace the only alternative to utter destruction. But it worked against the Soviets because for all their belligerence could always be counted on to choose life. The Commissars may have been stupid but they were not crazy. Can the same assumption be made about Islamic radicals who desire death? From the point of a theocratic zealot the rational choice may be to hasten Armageddon.
On closer inspection the manifesto might not be about deterrence at all. It is about committing to prevent terrorists from acquiring WMDs at all costs. The reason Lord Inge's remark that "to tie our hands on first use or no first use removes a huge plank of deterrence" is so significant is that it brings the trigger point back from second-strike or launch on attack to one in which WMD acquisition itself becomes the casus belli. It is almost a form of pre-deterrence.
No other recent political development has underlined the destructive effects of the Left's opposition to the War on Terror as much as this manifesto. To now stake the safety of the West upon pre-emptive nuclear attack rather than endure the constant sniping of the Left exposes the full bankruptcy of the "pacifist" position. This alternative may take the world to the brink of a catastrophe. One wonders whether any NATO majority will have sufficient confidence in their intelligence agencies to order a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the basis of a warning. In all probability they will not. What will likely happen is that the West will be left waiting for the descent of the first nuclear blow in order to generate the political capital to strike back, and then in the only way they can -- with atomic fires -- in place of the men who could not be mustered to defend it under the galling fire of their critics. Having refused to fight limited wars to preserve the peace, the West may now be left with threatening global catastrophe to preserve itself. The price of appeasement has always been high. It's always possible to kick a live grenade down the road as you walk down it. Some may see that as an advantage, but it isn't really.
Here's a link to the actual report, in PDF format. It's entitled "Towards a Grand Strategy in an Uncertain World". Some of the subheadings are suggestive: 'Decline of Sovereignty', 'Loss of the Rational', 'Scale and Complexity'. The chapter on the 'Loss of the Rational' for example, describes how with the breakdown of community, there are no more reference points to provide perspective, simply cults and fads; no basis upon which to evaluate things according to their ratio. "Taken together, these symptoms enhance the political frivolity of large parts of the developed world’s populations, leaving people intellectually, culturally and politically vulnerable." The choice of the word "frivolity" is inspired, as no better term can describe the obsession with the relatively petty -- the fate of whales, Kyoto, speech codes, etc -- while simultaneously ignoring very serious threats threats. It's a topsy-turvey world and the "loss of rationality" signifies the abolition of proportion, such as afflicts the madman who keeps looking for his bus ticket while his house is burning. But the presence of this kind of philosophical digression in what is ostensibly a strategy paper is disturbing, akin to having to pinch ourselves to ensure we are awake, so strange is the situation we find ourselves in.