Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The Second Conjecture Revisited

Steven den Beste discusses how the United States might respond to an terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), taking the Belmont Club's The Three Conjuctures as a starting point. Of the three, Steven finds he cannot agree with the second: that attaining WMDs will destroy Islam. Now a demurral by Steven Den Beste is nearly always ground to re-examine an argument. He points out an obvious error in terminology, which must be accepted.

Wretchard's second conjecture is that attaining WMDs will destroy Islam. This isn't really fully true. "Islam" already has nuclear weapons, in Pakistan, and "Islam" (actually, apostate Saddam in Arab Iraq) had chemical weapons.

But he understands the underlying sense of the argument, and after righting the terms, moves on.

Wretchard uses the term "Islam" during this part of his analysis to refer to the extremists; he's referring to the Jihadis, and possibly to hostile regimes which covertly support them. But his point in using "Islam" for this is to make clear that he thinks most of the world's Muslims run the risks he's describing, even if they're not militant. I agree that the majority of them are.

The debate seems to center around how the United States would respond to repeatable terrorist WMD attacks. The second conjecture argued, in Mr. Den Beste's accurate summation that:

if Islamic militants gained the ability to make several devastating attacks against us with nuclear weapons (albeit at a slow rate via smuggling) that if this then devolved into a "city-swapping" duel that there would be a strong incentive for us to end the war quickly by making a saturation strike against most of the Arab and Islamic world, since that would reduce our casualties in the long run.

He thinks this is improbable, and suggests that it is far more likely that following a WMD strike, the US would issue an ultimatum to any nation suspected of complicity, demanding full cooperation absent which they would be obliterated. But this merely inserts a comma before the word "obliteration" lurking at the end of the sentence. Mr. Den Beste's own reluctant conclusion sounds a lot like the second conjecture with pauses.

Would we actually obliterate the first nation which didn't fully cooperate? I don't think so; I think that we'd fire one warning shot ... But that would only happen one time, not once per nation. If anyone after that didn't get the message, I think we would do it, because we would have to.

That got me thinking why exactly "we would have to" -- framing the Second Conjecture in a alternative way -- and the results were surprising, and subtly different. For nearly 50 years it was established policy that if the United States was struck sufficiently forcefully by the USSR, they would be obliterated. If we let P be the population of the United States, an nuclear attack which would kill P/3, one third of the US population -- one hundred million people -- was considered sufficient to trigger a massive nuclear response. It meant that if we detected massive bomber formations and thousands of warheads inbound, not just the odd rogue airplane, that America was prepared to kill the last Russian baby in his crib in retaliation. That was straightforward.

Now, consider the series:

Sn = a1 + a2 + ... + an,    the nth partial sum

where each term in the summation represents a repeatable Al Qaeda attack with WMDs. It is obvious, by inspection, that for n sufficiently large, Sn > = P/3. That is to say, if an is a repeatable term --  if the Al Qaeda WMD attacks are repeatable -- a finite number of them would equal the effect of Soviet main strike, that is P/3. And, since we have already established that P/3 would be repaid by the total destruction of the USSR, down to the last babushka and baby, and since Sn > = P/3, then yes, we would have to obliterate the enemy if they kept attacking. The differences between Steven den Beste and the Belmont Club seem to be over whether it will happen sooner or later. (For those with morbid interests, the series converges. As n approaches infinity, Sn = P. That is to say, if Al Qaeda could continue attacking America indefinitely with an unlimited supply of WMDs, they would kill us all. But that is not an interesting result.)

What is interesting is why the series would not work for a nuclear armed Muslim nation like Pakistan. The answer, of course, is that a national enemy could not get past the first few terms in the series. If Pakistan attacked America as a nation, it would be obliterated after it launched the first strike, that is, n=1 and there would be no further terms in the series. Game over. The USSR was a superpower precisely because it could put thousands of warheads into the first term. But by using terrorist proxies, otherwise weak nations can transform themselves into virtual superpowers by creating the possibility of a deniable series of attacks. Returning to our notation, the fact that an Islamic nation has only two nuclear weapons,  a1 + a2,  is of no importance. What is vital is ensuring an and  n+1 is always possible. The real power of Islamic car bombs, shootings, knifings does not come from their individual destructiveness, but from idea that they are interminable, a series without end. Thus, a nobody like Kim Jong Il from a 10th rate, starving nation like North Korea can become a strategic threat on the order of the Soviet Union merely by threatening to supply weapons to this endless series of destruction.

To be continued.