Tuesday, May 06, 2003

The Bomb Rises Again

Bill Keller of the New York Times Magazine convincingly argues that efforts to stop nuclear proliferation have decisively failed. Despite the regime change in Iraq, despite the declared policy of keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the wrong hands, they are already there. "... it's not a question of one or two warheads being diverted,'' said a senior administration official. ''It's a question of a couple dozen Islamic bombs.''

Keller says, 

"In hindsight, you could say that the closing act of the first nuclear age took place in January 1994, when Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited in the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was the last of the former Soviet states to relinquish its unconventional weapons, and probably the only one with the technological wherewithal to override Moscow's centralized control systems and become an overnight nuclear state. But at that time, possession of nuclear weapons was still understood as a serious impediment for a country seeking admission into the Western world. If you wanted to join the party, you checked your nukes at the door."

"The second nuclear age was heralded by a rumble under the Rajasthani desert in 1998, as India's newly elected Hindu nationalist government detonated five test blasts. Two weeks later Pakistan followed suit. India's tests were a declaration of national pride, a sign of anxiety about its rival China and a caution to Pakistan."

"What Pakistan has unwittingly memorialized is a new nuclear era. A dozen years after the Soviet Union crumbled, nuclear weapons have not receded to the margins of our interest, as many expected. On the contrary, in this second nuclear age, such weapons govern our foreign policy more than they have in decades."

Read the whole thing.

As nuclear weapons proliferate, they will become more common and their use more readily considered. Their employment becomes "thinkable" simply because various regimes already think of using them, and the tautology becomes the fact. At one level, the United States has probably resigned itself to the advent of a world where the atomic genie has flown the coop, and it has signaled this by initiating the design of a whole new family of nuclear weapons, like deep-penetrating bunker busters. In a world where nukes become common, and their employment readily considered, it makes sense to have the best and most useable nuclear weapons.

Useable you say? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Consider the two roles that have been traditionally assigned to nuclear weapons: deterrence and war fighting. Nukes, despite their fearsome reputation, were never particularly effective at annihilating an enemy population. That was a myth. Even the massive US nuclear arsenal would not have wiped out the Soviet citizenry to the last man. Freeman Dyson unconsciously underlined the relative inefficacy of nuclear weapons, when he calculated, during the Vietnam war, that it would take 3,000 tactical nukes per year to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail, an area considerably smaller than the former Soviet Union. As weapons of Armageddon, nukes are a bust. Biological weapons are far more efficient at wiping out an enemy population than nukes, provided, of course, that one possesses the vaccine.

But as tactical devices, as war fighting devices, nukes are eminently usable. Indeed, the Navy had a wide range of perfectly viable nuclear depth charges and SAMs. They were so useful that for years, arms controllers feared that the threshold would be crossed at sea. The enhanced radiation weapons, the so-called "neutron bombs" of two decades ago were also deep-sixed, largely because they were too tactically useful to be left in existence.

But if the nuclear threshold, sacrosanct during the First Nuclear Age, has been inevitably breached by a swarm of new entrants into the Second Nuclear Age, then there can be no objection to the design and construction of nuclear weapons of all categories -- all, except, city-busters. That role -- deterrence -- will be left to the least "useable" weapon; the most monstrous weapon; the unthinkable weapon; the heir to the nuclear ogre: the biological bomb.

In a sense, the Second Nuclear Age is the direct result of the dethroning of the King, and the accession to power of the new Emperor of Death. Very little of this makes philosophical sense. And just as mankind was reaching for safety, the hope proved illusory. We have left the Garden of Eden. The way ahead is dark and full of tears; and though we look back longingly, there is no return: the gate to paradise is blocked by an angel with a flaming sword.