Friday, 9 April 2010

Unwanted Focus

I've been hearing for some years - pretty much since I started poking around in US politics, actually - that Charles Krauthammer is somewhere between morally bankrupt and flat out flame-spewing evil, but I've never actually gotten around to reading an entire column of his. I've seen pieces of them demolished to hilarious effect, but since I've never seen one complete and unsullied by commentators (though in every case so far it would not be unfair to say unsullied by logic), I've never stated an opinion about him.

Today, though, he was good enough to comment on a topic I am both extremely interested in, and can at least claim some limited amateur knowledge of: American nuclear policy and its effect on the world. I thought it might be instructive to have a quick look at something written by someone ostensibly amongst the most insightful and influential of American conservatives. The question under consideration: what effect will Obama's decision to pledge not to use first-strike nukes against non-NPT countries have?

Since the very idea of a post dedicated to giving a kicking to an immensely powerful and wealthy man, who spends his days lying to hundreds of thousands of people in exchange for B-2 bombers carpet-bombing his estate with cash, will doubtless be giving Spielbergo the vapours over how unfair I'm being, I shall quickly set out my own stall. What difference will this make? None at all, pretty much. It's a nice symbolic gesture, but that's probably all it is, for good or ill - though it can and I hope will work as a springboard for later efforts. I have more to my case than that, of course, but the bitter pill of my boring opinions will go down more easily if it's accompanied by a spoonful of childish-invective-sugar.

First off, Krauthammer starts ruminating on the good old days, when any country on the face of the planet could be instantly exterminated by the States whenever they chose.
During the Cold War, we let the Russians know that if they dared use their huge conventional military advantage and invaded Western Europe, they risked massive U.S. nuclear retaliation. Goodbye Moscow... The result was called deterrence. For half a century, it held. The Soviets never invaded. We never used nukes. That's why nuclear doctrine is important.
Thinking through the post hoc issues with the above statement is left as an exercise for the reader, but that's not all that's problematic here. Generally speaking, it's a bad sign when someone starts arguing that current tactics and positions are a bad idea now because they would have been a bad idea during the Cold War. Neocons like Krauthammer get a lot of flak for being unable to move their foreign policy thinking beyond Regan's presidency, and this is part of the reason why. Aside from anything else, it completely fails to note the fact that the US is far stronger militarily than it was when Regan arrived in the Oval, or indeed when he left it, despite the amount of money he poured into the armed forces during his tenure. Russia? Not so much for them with the massive military build-up. NATO is no longer living under the shadow of a conventional Russian attack that it would be nigh-on impossible to stop, the numerical supremacy issue having been slightly reduced, and the gap between NATO tech and that of the Russians significantly increased, both to Western advantage. The sooner Krauthammer realises all this, the better.

Of course, one can formulate a highly unlikely future scenario in which the Russians or the Chinese invade a non-European American ally, which has no other recourse to a nuclear deterrent (it's nice that Mr Krauthammer is so concerned with us cheese-gobbling continental types, but he might want to remember that we have nuclear weapons as well, and nothing Obama has agreed to would prevent the Yanks pressing all the shiny launch buttons they want once the mushroom clouds make an appearance), though finding a country that is both strategically important enough for the US to defend it with ICBMs but could not be defended in any other way would, I think, be damned tricky (the obvious exception will be discussed later), even before you start asking why the Russians or Chinese wanted to go to the effort of making a grab for them in any case. Even if you did do this, though, bending the laws of probability and the nature of international relationships to breaking point in order to prove that we can't know the Russians only didn't invade because of nukes and we can't know there won't ever be a country only defensible by US nukes - and which failure to defend would be genuinely catastrophic (I don't like the idea of country's being invaded any more than the next guy, but it's not in any way axiomatic that saving countries from occupation is worth deploying nuclear weapons), then this has to weighed against what can be gained by the policy change under discussion. In this case, that gain is the first step in an attempt to discourage nuclear proliferation by ensuring those that are within the NPT are treated differently from those without.

Still, whilst I don't agree with Krauthammer, I can see the bones of his argument. It's not appalling, just wrong. Then, though, things get more wobbly:
Under the old doctrine, supported by every president of both parties for decades, any aggressor ran the risk of a cataclysmic U.S. nuclear response that would leave the attacking nation a cinder and a memory.

Again: Credible? Doable? No one knows. But the threat was very effective.
The cracks begin to show. At this point, post hoc isn't just a concern, its the festering heart of a terrible argument. The reason there's never been a chemical or biological attack on the US is the fear of being nuked? Says who? Is there any evidence of this anywhere? Because I've never seen it. And if Krauthammer has, he's keeping it pretty damn quiet. More likely, it's just one of those things that neocons simply assume must be true, like how if America isn't constantly combative with everyone it disagrees with, it will make people think they're weak. The US has the largest military force in the world and in the history of the world. It has the CIA. It has the FBI. It has a seige mentality that for all its faults means it's pretty difficult to sneak anything past them. There is every reason to believe the reason no-one has successfully detonated a chemical bomb in downtown LA is because no-one has been able to. You can claim that we can't be sure the nuclear deterrent isn't responsible, and it be worth considering. Once you claim it has been, you need to start coming up with things like evidence. Especially since there's nothing anywhere that suggests the only thing that stopped the nukes being dragged out over 9/11 was the fact that it was a series of planes that killed thousands of people, rather than a virulent pathogen or deadly chemical cloud.

At this point, though, Krauthammer gives up on simple poor reasoning, and goes for gold in the Bat-Shit 100m at the Absolutely Fucking Insane Olympics.
Imagine the scenario: Hundreds of thousands are lying dead in the streets of Boston after a massive anthrax or nerve gas attack. The president immediately calls in the lawyers to determine whether the attacking state is in compliance with the NPT. If it turns out that the attacker is up-to-date with its latest IAEA inspections, well, it gets immunity from nuclear retaliation. (Our response is then restricted to bullets, bombs and other conventional munitions.)
There are three things to bear in mind here. Number 1, the list of who is and isn't complying with the NPT is, like, not difficult to find. If the US is attacked by India, Pakistan, North Korea, or Israel, then nukes are on the table. Iran may or may not be added to that list at some time in the future. Krauthammer conjures up (one presumes deliberately) an image of the President fiddling whilst Rome burns, but the idiocy of this image is immediately evident. The absolute last thing I would be concerned about following such a devastating attack on US home soil is the thought that it might take too long for the US to decide whether it could legally deploy nuclear weapons. By far the more concerning scenario is the possibility that they would know that deployment was illegal but do it anyway. That's because, quite aside from not being much of a fan of the idea that losing the civilian population of a city is a particularly good reason to kill the civilian population of a different city, I tend to believe the world is a better place when the countries in it keep their word. I also think it's best that lawyers give honest and impartial advice, rather than enabling the worst aspects of their President's desires, which is why out of Krauthammer and I, only one of us has written an article defending the legality of torture.

That brings me to issue number two: there are plenty of people in the world who can argue that the weight of international treaty is so strong that great care must be taken to ensure no document is ever signed if rigid, slavish obedience to it would disadvantage the country in the future. Charles Krauthammer, however, cannot. You simply cannot simultaneously argue that removing Saddam Hussein was so important the rest of the world could just go fuck itself and claim that agreeing not to use nuclear weapons following a biological attack means the option is being forevermore being taken off the table. This is a massive non-surprise ("I think I'm going to have a heart attack and die from not surprised!"), but Krauthammer is working backwards from wanting to claim Obama has done something terrible rather than essentially banal, and if that makes him change position from "international law = irrelevant" to "international law = would prevent defence of this country following a massive attack", then so be it. We can clearly tick the box on Krauthammer's reputation checklist marked "desperately mendacious".

The third issue becomes more clear following Krauthammer's next few sentences.
However, if the lawyers tell the president that the attacking state is NPT noncompliant, we are free to blow the bastards to nuclear kingdom come.

This is quite insane. It's like saying that if a terrorist deliberately uses his car to mow down a hundred people waiting at a bus stop, the decision as to whether he gets (a) hanged or (b) 100 hours of community service hinges entirely on whether his car had passed emissions inspections.
Really? That's what's it's like? Daniel Larison is spot on when he notes comparing community service to carpet bombing is utterly ludicrous, but that isn't all that's wrong here. Not only is Krauthammer suggesting that the unbelievable might of the US military cannot deter aggression, because only those shiny nukes can do that - and again, out of the two of us, only one has written an article stating that massive conventional superiority is necessary, despite it apparently not working as a deterrent - he's implying that somehow the difference between agreeing to not have nukes (or in a few cases, not to increase their numbers) and not agreeing to be nuke-free is somehow a small difference. Obama is taking the opposite tack. He's saying it's such a big difference that if you don't agree to be nuke-free he reserves the right to erase your country from the face of the Earth. Now, I don't think doing such a thing should ever be considered - though it's doubtful in the extreme that Krauthammer would share my scruples - but the upshot of this announcement is "Join our club and we won't nuke you".

This, of course, is what it comes down to. Whether or not this statement does much to prevent proliferation.
Does anyone believe that North Korea or Iran will be more persuaded to abjure nuclear weapons because they could then carry out a biological or chemical attack on the U.S. without fear of nuclear retaliation?
Krauthammer has it backwards here. The intent of this proclamation, as far as I can see, isn't an attempt to get North Korea to return to the NPT, it is to discourage others from leaving it - which may or may not include Iran. The idea is not to tell Kim Jong Il that if he comes back to the table, the nuclear option will be removed, it is to tell those currently within the treaty that they need not fear a nuclear attack from the US unless they leave. That there is an actual downside to leaving the treaty. That's what this is about. Trying to stop proliferation, which is an issue that anyone with any brains in their head should be able to realise is far more of a concern that the possibility of Cold War: The Return. This first step might be small (and it is), but that is the goal, the elephant in the room that Krauthammer is determined not to see.

As I say, I'm not sure that the new policy makes any real difference, which is why I'm happy to call this move symbolic (which is to say "not that big a deal"), but by this point Krauthammer has twisted himself into a position where he wants us to believe that the US' enemies are so desperate to parachute sarin gas cannisters into Times Square that only the threat of nuclear retaliation prevents it, but also that they wouldn't take the opportunity to do it if they were given the chance, because they think it too high a price to abandon nuclear programs that are either years away from producing anything, or have already proven to be fairly disappointing on the sort of scale by which such things are measured.[1] In fact, as far as I can see, Krauthammer is sketching out the correct argument, that this will probably make very little difference either way, but then attempting to lay on top of it the idea that it is potentially catastrophic. No-one outside the NPT will want to come in for the sake of a microscopic increase in their tactical options, but those already within will suddenly start trying to destroy the U.S. because they've just been handed victory on a plate. Or something.

Again, though, I can see that as just bad arguments rather than actual dissembling. But let's not speak to soon! No sooner have we had time to take a breath whilst swimming the Ocean of Infinite Incoherency, then our heads are pulled underwater once again.
The last quarter-century -- the time of greatest superpower nuclear arms reduction -- is precisely when Iran and North Korea went hellbent into the development of nuclear weapons.
Oh, Lord. Is there nothing Krauthammer isn't prepared to justify simply by pointing to two things happening at the same time? Is he really expecting us to believe that there was some critical mass of nuclear weapons in the world that was stopping Iran and North Korea from developing the bomb? That nuclear disarmament inspired their nuclear programmes, rather than, say technological advancement? Or deteriorating diplomatic relations? Or observing how easily India, Pakistan and Israel simply ignored the issue? Frankly, I'd be more likely to believe we might have avoided such things had we taken non-proliferation more seriously than we did, though I don't really have any compelling evidence for that possibility.
This is deeply worrying to many small nations who for half a century relied on the extended U.S. nuclear umbrella to keep them from being attacked or overrun by far more powerful neighbors. When smaller allies see the United States determined to move inexorably away from that posture -- and for them it's not posture, but existential protection -- what are they to think?
Hooray! Once again Krauthammer reminds us how deeply concerned he is about everyone in the world ever, now that it suits him to be! I'll tell you what they think: they'll think that the nuclear umbrella was in place to protect them from being nuked. Show me a country that in the last decade believed the US would launch nuclear missiles over if they were attacked by biological or chemical weapons, and I'll show you Israel. Maybe. In fact, I'm amazed given Krauthammer's reputation that such wasn't the whole thrust of his argument: how do we protect Israel without the nuclear option? Perhaps Krauthammer isn't quite as bad as his rep suggests, or maybe even he couldn't explicitly make the argument that a nuclear-armed Israel needs the US to protect it with nuclear weapons without worrying he would be struck down by the God of Logic.

Regardless, I can't believe any government in their right minds would pin their hopes on a nuclear strike from the States preventing a coventional invasion or chemical/biological attack. Saakashvili was roundly decried as lunatic nut for ever believing the US would send even conventional forces to defend Georgia from Russian invasion, this despite the US having both been far too willing to imply support and having made the terribly-risky-at-best move to suggest Georgia join NATO (which would have required such military aid to be sent). The extra degree of sheer psychotic self-regard needed to believe one's country to be so important that the US will start oblitering cities for you is simply incomprehensible, and should such allies exist, it is ridiculous to suggest that the States should indulge them in their delusions. As Larison is so fond of pointing out, a good friend tells you the truth, and a bad one tells you what you want to hear. The level of shittiness a friend needs to get to in order to pretend they are willing to defend them with WMD when they actually aren't is fairly obvious.

In conclusion, it's a dreadful mess, incoherent both with Krauthammer's larger position and in its own right, and manages that most obnoxious trick of using allied nations to make petty points under the guise of concern for their welfare. Which is to say, standard Neocon fare. That said, I wanted evil. I was promised evil. Maybe next time, I guess. Once we get back to arguing over how many dead Iranians are worth a bit of peace of mind.

[1] That's not to say North Korea's access to nukes isn't profoundly worrying, merely that it's arsenal is desperately feeble compared to every other nuclear nation, so shelving it wouldn't be the totally inconceivable idea Krauthammer suggests it is.

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