Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Their bomb, our bomb

Noah Feldman, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and writing in the New York Times, thinks that not one, but many Islamic nuclear nations are now inevitable; and that the chance they may be used against each other or on the West is not inevitable but is certainly possible. Feldman spends a great deal of time describing Islamic notions of strategy, focusing in particular on the process by which suicide attacks, once so strictly proscribed in Islam, has become the archetypical Islamic tactic. Moreover, Feldman discusses the eschatological views of both Sunni and Shi'a Islam concluding that from a theological point of view at least, America has more to fear from Iran than al-Qaeda.

Given the increasing instability of the Middle East, nuclear proliferation there is more worrisome than almost anywhere else on earth. As nuclear technology spreads, terrorists will enjoy increasing odds of getting their hands on nuclear weapons. States including North Korea might sell bombs or give them to favored proxy allies, the way Iran gave Hezbollah medium-range rockets that Hezbollah used this summer during its war with Israel. Bombing through an intermediary has its advantages: deniability is, after all, the name of the game for a government trying to avoid nuclear retaliation. ...

The prospect of not just one Islamic bomb, but many, inevitably concentrates the mind on how Muslims ? whether Shiite or Sunni ? might use their nuclear weapons. In the mid-1980?s, when Pakistan became the first Islamic state to go nuclear, it was still possible to avoid asking the awkward question of whether there was something distinctive about Islamic belief or practice that made possession of nuclear technology especially worrisome. Most observers assumed that Islamic states could be deterred from using nuclear force just like other states: by the threat of massive retaliation.

During the last two decades, however, there has been a profound change in the way violence is discussed and deployed in the Muslim world. In particular, we have encountered the rise of suicide bombing. In historic terms, this development is new and unexpected. Suicide bombing has no traditional basis in Islam. As a technique, it was totally absent from the successful Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Although suicide bombing as a tool of stateless terrorists was dreamed up a hundred years ago by the European anarchists immortalized in Joseph Conrad's ...

What makes suicide bombing especially relevant to the nuclear question is that, by design, it unsettles the theory of deterrence. When the suicide bomber dies in an attack, he means to send the message ?You cannot stop me, because I am already willing to die.? To make the challenge to deterrence even more stark, a suicide bomber who blows up a market or a funeral gathering in Iraq or Afghanistan is willing to kill innocent bystanders, including fellow Muslims. According to the prevailing ideology of suicide bombing, these victims are subjected to an involuntary martyrdom that is no less glorious for being unintentional.

Feldman's article is caught in a curious dilemma: on the one hand arguing that an understanding of Islam as a religion is essential to the knowledge of the strategy of Iran, Saudi Arabia or al-Qaeda; but on the other hand arguing that Islamic dictates need not be taken at face value. For example, Feldman maintains that Middle Eastern countries, like all others, are driven by a mix of national, personal and religious goals; that therefore it would be a mistake to take the religious element and pronounce it dominant. But he is certainly realistic enough to understand that on occasion the religious content can be dominant and accepts the possibility that a momentary ascendance could result in a momentary mushroom cloud over a Western city. In the end Feldman doesn't know what will happen and resorts to what talented writers the world over fall back upon when faced with the unknowable: they dazzle us with prose.

That means that the best we can hope for in nuclear Islamic states in the near term is a rational dictator like Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who sees his bread buttered on the side of an alliance with the West. Such rulers can be very strong and can bring stability, but we also know that their rule (or reign) promotes Islamist opposition, with its often violent overtones. When such rulers die or otherwise fall from power, the Islamists will be poised to use the international power conferred by nuclear weapons to pursue their own ends ? ends for now overwhelmingly likely to be anti-American.

None of this is inherent in the structure of Islam itself. Islam contains a rich and multivocal set of traditions and ideas, susceptible to being used for good or ill, for restraint or destruction. This interpretive flexibility equally characteristic of the other great world religions does not rob Islam of its distinctiveness. An Islamic bomb would not be just the same as the nationalist bomb of a majority-Muslim state, nor would it be the same as a Christian bomb or a Jewish one. But its role in history will depend, ultimately, on the meaning Muslims give it, and the uses to which they put their faith and their capabilities. In confronting the possibility of the Islamic bomb, we Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to remember that Islam exists both as an ideal system of morals and values and as a force that motivates actual people living today, with all the frailties and imperfections that make us human.

This is a fancy way of saying we haven't a clue whether or not the Islamic world will pull the trigger and about the only way to find out is to wait and see. It is arguments like Feldman's, which more than anything else, establish the need for some kind of faith to get on with our lives. Camus once argued that there was "but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." But I disagree. Doetoevsky was closer to the mark when he argued that the only philosophical question we should ask ourselves is why everything should not be permitted. In a world without transcendental meaning, why shouldn't the West, with its overwhelming preponderance in weapons, not engage in a pre-emptive strike against the Islamic world before it gets a chance to acquire nukes? Richard Dawkins, a convinced atheist, expounded on the concept of the Selfish Gene, here described in a Wikpedia entry. Under this rule an organism's only duty is to survive. If killing a billion Muslims will improve our chances of survival as individuals and as a culture then why not?

More precisely, an organism is expected to evolve to maximise its inclusive fitness – the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. The book also coins the term meme, for a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, suggesting that such "selfish" replication may also model human culture, in a different sense.

If evolution were all, then why the dickens not? And the only counterargument I can think of to the idea preemptively destroying an enemy before he can destroy us — if it were possible in principle —  is that it is wrong, a word whose insinuation into an argument has untold implications. Everything that Feldman said about Muslims: their role in history, the uses to which they put their faith is true of every man. In order to be men we risk our lives knowing that living is important, but not all that we care about.


Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

That was one long article. Somewhere in there the author says that Islamic scholars have concluded, or decided or deduced from Islamic sources, that in defending Islam anything is permissible. This is used as a justification of suicide bombing but presumably will be used as a justification of nuclear bombing when the time comes.

The fact is that the West also would justify any tactic in its defense, depending on the circumstances and the severity of the attack. We justified use of nukes against the Japanese and we would justify their use again if we were attacked in extremis.

The thing is that Islam isn't under attack. US attacks against Muslim countries and Israel's existence don't constitute attacks on Islam so it isn't justified to "permit anything" in attacks against Islam's, or Iran's, enemies.

"If killing a billion Muslims will improve our chances of survival as individuals and as a culture then why not?"

We don't want to live in the Wild West anymore. We don't want to have to carry our six-shooters, or our six Megatoners, everywhere we go and shoot first and ask questions later for the foreseeable future. Do you want to live in a world where a billion people can be incinerated just to increase someone else's chances of survival? What if China and Russia side with the Muslims, just to be contrary? What if China decides to wait until we're done with the Muslims and then incinerates us? Who will they sell their refrigerators and cheap DVD players to after that? Doesn't matter. All that would matter would be how they perceive their "chances of survival as individuals and as a culture" being affected by destroying us.

I'm not saying that there's no possible justification for using a lot of nukes, just that "killing a billion Muslims will improve our chances of survival as individuals and as a culture" isn't enough.

Having said that, I would be in favor of destabilizing the Iranian economy, by hook or by crook. A few anti-tank weapons fired into their oil refineries would make an interesting start.

10/31/2006 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

I don't believe it would be morally justified to engage in a preemptive nuclear strike on the Islamic world but I think that stand logically compels me to accept two things. First, morality is a real human quantity. Second, that one must be willing to pay the price for upholding that morality. And that price, I think, must necessarily include doing everything reasonable to prevent terrorists from acquiring atomic weapons. Otherwise a situation could develop where necessity trumps morality or simply spints out of control.

Feldman argues that Islamic values are not irrelevant to whether or not nuclear weapons may possibly be used. Neither should the values of the West, which after all has them in the thousands. Ever since Oppenheimer observed at the Trinity Test that technology finally gave man the means to annihilate himself, survival has been a case of the sufficiency of goodwill not the insufficiency of means.

There is nothing that physically prevents mankind from bringing catastrophe upon himself other than the restraints of his own value system. The means are ready to hand. Perhaps too ready to hand. We literally survive solely on the strength of our values. What there is left of them.

10/31/2006 06:21:00 PM  
Blogger Pangloss said...

As I wrote only yesterday, "the state of our soul matters". The moral laws that guide people matter. The West is going down the wrong road, increasing its ability to destroy its enemies, itself, and even its world, while deliberately driving religion and traditional moral teachings out of the public square.

The more powerful a country gets, the more moral and restrained it must be, or it will inevitably become a tyrant to the world.

Is America a tyrant? No. But those other nations that call America a tyrant would teach the world a lesson in tyranny that would not be soon forgot if they could carry America's sword and bind on her shield and steel greaves. It will take more men with the qualities of a George Washington, unwilling to accept the crown of the emperor or to become dictators over Americans, to ensure that America stays free, a beacon of liberty and a force for justice.

Let us pray that America remains a source of that goodwill, and that our leaders are likewise inspired by it.

10/31/2006 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...


In your article you mention the Selfish Gene but in your reply you mention values. As I mentioned above, our selfishness can easily demand that we not annihilate our enemy. Morality and values need not be invoked. The Pandora's box that would be opened by our actions might not be closed, to our detriment. We don't have to rely on morality or values to prevent us from making a preemptive attack.

Our inducement to annihilate our enemy is based on our feeling that he is going to annihilate us. Launch on warning, if you will. Are we at the stage that we feel the warning has arrived?

OTOH, we can attack with less than annihilation as our goal if we attack with lesser weapons.

10/31/2006 08:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Organism has a duty to survive"
isnt a good or even correct way of putting it.
The organisms or genes have no duties--they survive or they dont.

10/31/2006 09:13:00 PM  
Blogger Meme chose said...

Julius Caesar is estimated to have killed about a third of the population of France (well over a million) in his various, eventually successful, efforts to pacify the region. He had to go at it more than once, because his opponents were about as cooperative as what we might call the primitive end of Muslim society is today. He was applauded in Rome, for having put a permanent end to a serious long-term threat.

At a later stage a far more affluent generation of Romans got the idea that they could afford to spend more time, effort and money struggling against each other than on dealing with foreign threats. Those of their children who survived the resulting catastrophic invasion and defeat lived out their lives in abject poverty, if not slavery. Maybe they learned a lesson from this, maybe they learned what frivolousness really means, but if so by then and for them it was too late.

10/31/2006 09:27:00 PM  
Blogger The probligo said...


If the west could in some remote way link the "oil revenue feeds terrorism" argument with the need to combat global warming as outlined in the Herd(?) report, then we might just get somewheres.

Two chickens? One stone?

11/01/2006 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger genwolf said...

From The Article:
But following the logic of suicide bombing, the original bomber might reason that those Muslims would die in God’s grace and that others would live on to fight the jihad. No state in the Muslim world has openly embraced such a view. But after 9/11, we can no longer treat the possibility as fanciful.

I thought that Rafsanjani's statement - to the effect that Iran 's size and population would be able to survive an Israeli nuclear response, which would be worth it if it resulted in Israels destruction.

It does perhaps offer an avenue to strengthen moderate or realist forces in the Islamic world - highlighting the such things such as Rafsanjani's statement, the course of the Islamist war in Algeria or even Iraq - these should be front and center in the ideological war against Islamism - by impressing on Muslim's that this ideology is intent on leading them to the apocalypse at worst and violent ruin and misery at best.

What is required is a renewed commitment to deterrence - an open declaration that the almost certain result of even the attempted use of a nuke by any islamist group would be a generalised retaliation against the sea in which Islamist's swim. I think there is an extreme danger in encouraging a belief that a strike by proxy is something that could be gotten away with, or would even be so measured that those Islamists who hold the nuclear keys might be tempted to calculate that the resposnse would be worth the damage inflicted. We need a return to MAD - a single nuke is already beyond the point where we still use the lanaguage of graduated escaltion and proportional response - the best way of preventing that is an absolutely credible counterthreat that is widely understood that any use of WMD's will not provoke an utterly savage , dispropotionate and widespread response that will completely lay waste to the Muslim heartland. Such a threat is the best way to prevent such a thing occuring, because I simply do not believe that once WMD's have been used that an attempt at proportional escalation will not end up both laying waste the Muslim heartland , but also doing the same to the heartland of the west.

11/01/2006 06:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a document from the Federation of American Scientists concerning the "nuclear threshold" and WMD's in general.. basically its the government's guideline on combating WMD's in hostile hands.

11/01/2006 11:38:00 PM  

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