Sunday, September 07, 2003

The Unthinkable

Stanley Kurtz of the National Review argues that the United States is on the "path to war" with North Korea, however it tries to avoid it, because of the pathological nature of the Kim Jong Il regime.  Parapundit concludes that the "most likely outcome continues to be that we first lose an American city to a terrorist nuke attack and only then attack North Korea for having helped proliferate nukes to the point where some ended up in terrorist hands." That whatever the determination to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it is perhaps probable that these devices will eventually be acquired and used by terrorist groups.

There has been little open discussion on what should constitute American retaliatory doctrine in the event of a terrorist nuclear attack except in the leftist press, which largely takes the view that the mere preparation of a retaliatory plan would be provocative in itself; that if we unilaterally disarm and curl into a ball, the enemy will scorn to destroy us. The Left has considered the issue to the extent of reciting old clich├ęs.

That is more than be said of the silence on this subject in respectable circles. During the Cold War "the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force devised the Single Integrated Operational Plan [SIOP]" to guide a US response to a Soviet nuclear attack. But what has taken its place? In a situation when a nuclear terrorist attack may be probable and not deterrable, a new doctrine and plan are obviously needed. Yet we see no sign of it and the public would be poorly served if the principal issues were not debated and scrutinized with the greatest care. Any pre-emptive or retaliatory strategy would have to address these unique circumstances.

  1. A nuclear terrorist attack may not be acknowledged by any state. The fissile fingerprint may point to stolen or "lost" nuclear materials.
  2. The terrorist enemy may not be deterred, only enraged, by any subsequent retaliation.
  3. Any preemption or retaliation would have to effectively prevent a subsequent attack on the United States for the foreseeable future. It would be pointless to inflict millions of casualties in retaliation unless the ends could be achieved. The political, economic and human costs would be so high that only a long-term peace dividend would justify it.
  4. It must account for the possibility that a major nuclear power may be the covert sponsor of the attack.
  5. The terrorist enemy may be based in friendly (European) countries, or even within North America or the United States.

These constraints make the formulation of a pre-emptive or retaliatory doctrine very difficult. Points 2 and 3 almost rule out a limited response. One obvious option would be a full retaliatory extermination -- killing every known Muslim on the planet -- a billion deaths -- as a comprehensive response to nuclear jihad. A variant would set extermination as a theoretical extreme attainable in a series of steps that can be mounted as needed, though it is difficult to see how the enmities once begun by the first steps can be quelled unless taken to the limit. And extermination can never be final for an idea cannot be physically destroyed and may reappear again.

The problems attendant to Point 4 return us to the old, almost comforting conundrums of Mutual Assured Destruction, unsolvable but familiar. The problems arising from Point 5 can be addressed by some form of tailored biological agent, and we will leave it at that.

What are we to make of a pressing contingency whose only apparent solutions would make Hitler proud? The urge to look away from these ugly thoughts is overwhelming, until we realize that the enemy has compelled us to consider them or die. The real power of Islamic jihad lies not in its destructive means, as some have mistakenly held, but in the bottomless depth of its hatred, its total indifference to any known historical standard of decency which makes anyone who would confront it descend into the very pit of Hell. The necromancers of Islam have unleashed a dark spirit upon the world and we must struggle to contain it without becoming infected by its malice.

The only sane way forward is do our best and trust to luck, or for those who prefer, to trust in God. We cannot create a retaliatory "doctrine" of such monstrous proportions as extermination except to ensure that in the event of our own annihilation this Thing spawned on earth cannot reach the stars. But for policy we can only to continue the fight it conventionally, with weapons wielded by men and by sowing subversive ideas into the dark recesses of its caves, with the hope, but never the assurance of ultimate victory. It perhaps ironical that in opening days of the 21st century, the power of physical science should prove so helpless in a battle where ideas and beliefs are the only substantial things; and hope so forlorn that it can only be sustained by the expectation of grace.