The year before George W. Bush became president, I saw a truly frightening Hollywood film. It was written and directed by Rod Lurie and starred Kevin Pollak as President Walter Emerson. The low-budget thriller culminated in a 10-minute monologue by the president explaining that he just dropped a hydrogen bomb on Baghdad to "deter" Saddam Hussein. This was not Dr. Strangelove, not an antiwar movie; this was a real argument for nuking millions of Iraqis to serve a political end.
The movie was called Deterrence, but it should have been called In Cold Blood since it argued "logically" that protecting American business interests abroad justifies the vaporization of a city. Lurie's polemic extolled the use of nuclear weapons to wage "preventive" warfare, which has replaced the concept of "mutually assured destruction" in the lexicon of those who think the unthinkable.
Fast forward six years to the East Bay living room of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who gave the top secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1969, thereby exposing the Vietnam War as a dirty, aggressive affair that had nothing to do with liberating the Vietnamese and everything to do with securing South East Asian markets for corporate America. For three hours, the septuagenarian Ellsberg regaled me with his eyewitness accounts from Eisenhower to Nixon of debates about the meaning of deterrence inside the nuclear warfare complex.
During the Cold War, Ellsberg worked as a "game theorist" for the Rand Corporation and then at the Department of Defense as a high-ranking official developing nuclear attack options. At Rand, he used the statistical methods of game theory—which purport to describe how "rational" people act when confronted with rational choices—to show that it was irrational to develop nuclear first-strike capabilities against the Soviet Union. Ellsberg's math demonstrated that manufacturing attack missiles capable of destroying Soviet missiles would achieve the opposite of deterrence. It would encourage the Soviets to bomb us before we bombed them, so we should bomb them before they bombed us, ad infinitum. His recommendation to concentrate on planning how to survive an attack and on being able to retaliate proportionately was ignored by civilian and military policy makers who, as Eisenhower famously pointed out, were more interested in making money manufacturing arms than in avoiding Armageddon.
Ellsberg makes a distinction between "preemptive" warfare, which is the policy of planning to strike an enemy when you know he is about to strike you, as opposed to "preventive" warfare, a medicinal-sounding term which pleads self-defense as an excuse for aggression. The United States has long practiced preventive warfare—in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq and in covert actions galore.
Ellsberg points out that, like his predecessors, President Clinton approved of preemptive warfare and the "first use" of nuclear weapons as an instrument of foreign policy. But President Bush and his neoconservative advisers are the first leaders to publicly favor preventive use of nuclear weapons against perceived threats to American business interests. And they have reconfigured the Pentagon's war plans to that end. According to the nonpartisan Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., Bush is ready to preventively deploy strategic and tactical nuclear weapons against all enemies (including stateless terrorists).
The Pentagon's first-strike doctrine does not differentiate between the battlefield use of conventional and nuclear weapons, except as to their effectiveness in destroying targets.
Ironically, Bush's "Joint Doctrine for Nuclear Operations" accepts Ellsberg's Cold War analysis that deterrence will not work when your enemy sees you arming for a first strike. According to the Arms Control Association, "The new doctrine appears to be precipitated by anticipation among military planners that deterrence will fail and U.S. nuclear weapons will be used in a conflict sooner or later." In other words, maintaining peace through deterrence is no longer our official goal; instead, we will wage aggressive wars, including nuclear wars, on the political basis of deterrence.
The Bush doctrine identifies two basic scenarios that would permit nuclear aggression by the United States: (1) an adversary "intends" to use weapons of mass destruction, as determined by the president or a field commander; (2) a demonstration of U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear weapons is deemed necessary to deter adversaries. Suddenly, just like in Lurie's movie, deterrence is synonymous with preventive attack. Ellsberg points out that now that the Soviet threat is vastly diminished, the American public is much more inclined to accept the first-strike use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction by the United States, since it is unlikely that the practically defenseless countries we typically bomb can retaliate.
The Congressional Research Service reports, "[T]he possible preemptive use of nuclear weapons against nations or groups that are not necessarily armed with their own nuclear weapons [is] a striking change in U.S. national security policy, with the United States possibly contemplating nuclear use early or at the start of a conflict, rather than in response to actions taken by an adversary."
In addition to China and Russia (if it re-emerges as a superpower), North Korea, Syria and Iran are our prime targets. It is not hard to imagine Bush adding Venezuela to the hit list. "Not only would these nations receive no security benefit from the absence of nuclear weapons in their arsenals, they might also conclude that they could only deter a U.S. attack if they were to acquire their own nuclear weapons."
Disinterested in nuclear disarmament and peace, Bush abrogated several decades worth of nonproliferation treaties and policies in his first term. Recently, in an act that is widely viewed as incompetent, even insane, he overtly sided with nuclear India against nuclear Pakistan and nuclear China—throwing kerosene into the fire of the nuclear arms race.
Our United Nations ambassador John Bolton recently told a meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee that the United States must be prepared to "use all the tools at our disposal to stop the threat that the Iranian regime poses." Vice President Cheney told the same group, "We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon." These remorseless neocons are clearly eager to "deter" Tehran with a hydrogen bomb. On the other hand, nuking Iran, which is not even close to building one atom bomb, would be a profoundly irrational act that would focus the righteous hatred of the world's people upon America.
Leaders of emerging industrial markets in the Third World could employ game theories, too, to figure out the best way to respond to the belligerence of the United States. The most well-known games are zero sum games, in which the winner takes all. For example, Bush is playing a zero sum game in which the fate of the world seems to count as nothing against the short-term profits of Halliburton, Exxon, AT&T, Citicorp and the Carlyle Group.
In more rational games, though, winners are rewarded for cooperating with each other and committing altruistic acts. In fact, the successes of natural selection in biology and socioeconomic cooperation between humans can be modeled by game and probability theories that demonstrate the efficacy of cooperation over competition. In the end, Bush's enemies (who are not the enemies of the American people) will probably be forced to cooperatively arm themselves with nuclear bombs so as to cooperatively deter us from deterring them.
Once we are defanged, anything is possible, even peace.
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