In attempts to professionally develop myself in the ways of nuclear weapons strategy, I like to stay abreast of the many articles and discussions ongoing in this field. One of the major challenges is that the discussion on nuclear weapons
January 5, 2011


In attempts to professionally develop myself in the ways of nuclear weapons strategy, I like to stay abreast of the many articles and discussions ongoing in this field. One of the major challenges is that the discussion on nuclear weapons strategy is often divorced from the general discussion of national strategy. That is to say, paraphrasing Colin Gray in his excellent book "Modern Strategy," the problem with nuclear weapons is that they can't be used as military tools to obtain political objectives during a state-versus-state conflict. Nuclear weapons provide a degree of deterrence against being attacked by other nations' nuclear weapons. But it's hard to develop regional strategies that include the phrase "and here's where we use nukes to win the conflict."

It seems that nonproliferation advocates and nuclear weapons hawks talk about nuclear weapons strategy, while other military analysts and statesmen talk about general military strategy that addresses conventional and irregular warfare. The two groups don't mix. You just don't see the nuclear weapons community reviewing general military strategy or discussing current national security topics, and similarly, the general military analysts and statesmen don't talk about nuclear weapons strategy. So imagine my surprise when I found that the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments had a monograph in Foreign Affairs titled "The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran: The Limits of Containment."

This article was written by former Bush OSD undersecretary for policy Eric Edelman, CSBA president Andrew Krepinevich, and CSBA research fellow Evan Montgomery. You really have to read this to comprehend the neocon mindset, their fixation on developing military options to force Iran to comply with their manufactured reality. Now I understand Edelman coming forward with this paper, but it really does nothing for Krepinevich's reputation to be associated with this really poorly thought-through fantasy world. As for Montgomery, he appears to be the usual (and perhaps gifted) nonproliferation poly-sci analyst, so maybe he can recover from this fiasco.

I'm going to attempt to summarize the high points of this 16-page paper, not that you couldn't run through this article quickly enough. Essentially the authors argue that any strategy to contain Iran's nuclear weapons program will fail, because:

  • US diplomacy sucks and nonproliferation activities are a joke; extended deterrence is a unique situation that only works with Russia
  • Iran will get more aggressive once they get nukes and US allies will change allegiances to accomodate the new nuclear power
  • The United States will not be able to offer assurances to US regional partners, because it's reducing the number of its nuclear weapons through New START
  • Israel can't be counted on to hold back from a first-strike attack against Iran, and Israel can't admit to having nukes, because that will make Israeli-Arab relations more difficult (they could be worse?)
  • Iran's nuclear program will result in Saudi Arabia asking Pakistan for nuclear weapons, while other Arab nations will use nuclear energy technology as a pretext for preparing their own nuclear weapons programs (what NPT?)
  • Because Iran can't be counted on to protect their nukes from internal threats or harden them against external threats, they're going to use the nukes at the first opportunity if they are attacked

Amazingly, one of the statements they make is that any missile defense system can be overwhelmed by a response by conventional ballistic missiles, which would leave "countries vulnerable to follow-on attacks with nuclear weapons." One wonders how the neocons (or anyone else, for that matter) can support the European missile defense effort with this observation. But let me lead into their recommendations. Instead of "accepting the unacceptable," the authors want to go with Will Roger's advice of using diplomacy as a distraction while one reaches for a big rock.

  • First, continue diplomatic talks and economic sanctions so that the United States can demonstrate that it wanted a non-military approach before it uses "more forceful measures"
  • Second, support clandestine activities such as Stuxnet to sabotage and slow down the Iranian nuclear program, gaining more time to prepare military forces
  • Third, deploy significant military assets into the region, including stealth bombers, precision-guided munitions, electronic warfare systems, guided missile submarines, sea-based missile defense platforms, and maybe a second Navy carrier strike group

Now, to end the article, the authors note that there is that nasty risk that war with Iran might actually have consequences; that containment might in fact work and allow the United States to use those military assets to "defend vital interests elsewhere." But "containment could require a far larger military presence than the United States has traditionally maintained in the Middle East," even as the authors voice their support for significantly increasing conventional forces in the Middle East under their plan.

I'm just astonished, overcome by the strawman that they've developed. There are just so many things wrong with this construct, it is hard to put words against it. Nonproliferation activities, to include sanctions, have been shown to work in retarding and in some cases, reversing offensive WMD programs. Yes, military options are another facet, if a conflict is seen as on the horizon. But the failure here to understand the basic need for a regional approach to enhance stability and advance American interests is just staggering.

This is the real danger of allowing idealists, of which neocons are a party, into positions of actual responsibility. They create worst-case scenarios that justify taking extreme measures that they believe will lead to the reality that they want, rather than dealing with the reality that actually exists. This fradulent attempt at dismissing the option of containing Iran should not stand unopposed, and I do hope that other serious defense analysts will rise up against the strawman that these authors have developed.

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