Tag: deterrence

Charles Krauthammer, Rocket Scientist

Last evening on FoxNews, host Bret Baier reported that the Iranians had launched a rocket carrying ”a mouse, two turtles, and a can of worms” into space. He asked the panelists to speculate on the implications.

Charles Krauthammer inveighed “if you can put a mouse into space, you can put a nuke in New York, in principle.” Given that they are clearly developing the technological capabilities that would allow them to nuke New York, Krauthammer concluded, “our only hope on the nuclear issue or any other is a revolution and to help that revolution ought to be our task.”

Well.

To her credit, Jennifer Loven of the AP wasn’t having any of it. “It’s an incredibly large leap,” she pointed out, ”between a mouse in space and a nuke in New York….[I]t’s a…ginormous gap.”

How “ginormous”? The analogies are imperfect, but I can throw a football a fair distance. In principle, I could start in the Super Bowl.

More seriously, there are modest parallels to the subject of my first book – the mythical missile gap of the late 1950s. The missile gap was precipitated by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Millions of Americans became convinced that the beeping silver sphere orbiting the earth signified that the Soviets could, in principle, drop a nuclear weapon on any city in the United States. This misconception was helped along by some opportunistic fearmongering by, chiefly, Democrats who delighted in embarassing President Dwight Eisenhower. And the ploy worked. The Dems rolled up huge victories in the mid-term election of 1958, and John F. Kennedy capitalized on the missile gap to help get elected president in 1960.

The actual missile gap – in the U.S. favor – was irrelevant. It would have been equally irrelevant if the roles were reversed, with the Soviets in possession of hundreds of ICBMs, and the U.S. with only a handful of shorter range weapons. Even if the Soviets had perfected the ability to throw a nuclear warhead onto U.S. territory, what ultimately prevented them from doing so was not technological but psychological – they were deterred by our vast arsenal. And they continued to be so deterred for decades until the entire edifice of Soviet power came crashing down, from within, without any significant assistance from the United States.

Would Krauthammer contend that Eisenhower’s refusal to overthrow the Soviet regime in 1958 was “an embarassing failure?” The Soviets did, after all, actually have nuclear weapons, many of them. The Iranians have none, and have not even mastered the enrichment cycle, let alone the long process toward weaponization.  By implying that the only thing that stops the Iranians from immediately nuking New York is their technical capabilities, Krauthammer demonstrates a shocking ignorance of some of the most basic principles of international relations, beginning with deterrence. This makes him a horrible political scientist.

But as a rocket scientist, he’s even worse.

Trading Washington for Tbilisi?

Alliances often are advanced, as with NATO expansion, as a cheap way of keeping the peace.  After all, it is said, no one would dare challenge America.  But while alliances can deter, deterrence can fail – with catastrophic consequences.  Both World Wars I and II featured failed alliances and security guarantees.  Oops!

If deterence fails, the guaranteeing state either has to retreat ignominously or plunge into war, neither of which is likely to be in America’s interest.  Moreover, promising to defend other nations encourages them to be irresponsible:  after all, why not adopt a risky foreign policy if Washington is willing to back you up, nuclear weapons and all?  It’s a form of moral hazard applied to foreign policy.

That appears to be the case with the country of Georgia.  There’s a lot of disagreement over the character of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government, even among libertarians.  But a new European Union panel has amassed evidence that President Saakashvili is a bit of a foreign policy adventurer.  Reports Spiegel online:

Unpublished documents produced by the European Union commission that investigated the conflict between Georgia and Moscow assign much of the blame to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. But the Kremlin and Ossetian militias are also partly responsible.

From her office on Avenue de la Paix, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, 58, looks out onto the botanical gardens in peaceful Geneva. The view offers a welcome respite from the stacks of documents on her desk, which deal exclusively with war and war blame. They contain the responses, from the conflicting parties in the Caucasus region – Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – to a European Union investigative commission conducting a probe of the cause of the five-day war last August. The documents also include reports on the EU commission’s trips to Moscow, the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, dossiers assembled by experts and the transcripts of interviews of diplomats, military officials and civilian victims of the war.

The Caucasus expert, nicknamed “Madame Courage” by the Zurich-based Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, is considered a specialist on sensitive diplomatic matters. The Caucasus issue is the most difficult challenge she has faced to date. The final report by the commission she heads must be submitted to the EU Council of Ministers by late July. In the report, Tagliavini is expected to explain how, in August 2008, a long-smoldering regional conflict over the breakaway Georgia province of South Ossetia could suddenly have escalated into a war between Georgia and its much more powerful neighbor, Russia. Who is to blame for the most serious confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War?

In addition to having a budget of €1.6 million ($2.2 million) at her disposal, Tagliavini can draw on the expertise of two deputies, 10 specialists, military officials, political scientists, historians and international law experts.

Much hinges on the conclusions her commission will reach. Is Georgia, a former Soviet republic, a serious candidate for membership in NATO, or is the country in the hands of a reckless gambler? Did the Russian leadership simply defend South Ossetia, an ally seeking independence from Georgia, against a Georgian attack? Or did Russia spark a global crisis when its troops occupied parts of Georgia for a short period of time?

The confidential investigative commission documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show that the task of assigning blame for the conflict has been as much of a challenge for the commission members as it has for the international community. However, a majority of members tend to arrive at the assessment that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili started the war by attacking South Ossetia on August 7, 2008. The facts assembled on Tagliavini’s desk refute Saakashvili’s claim that his country became the innocent victim of “Russian aggression” on that day.

In summarizing the military fiasco, commission member Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel, claims: “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.”

Whatever the justification for President Saakashvili’s conduct, it certainly isn’t the kind of policy to which the U.S. should tie itself.  Yet including Georgia in NATO would in effect make President Saakashvili’s goals those of the American government and, by extension, the American people.

How many Americans should die to ensure that George gets to rule South Ossetia and Abkhazia?  Should we risk Washington for Tbilisi?  These are questions the Obama administration should answer before it joins the Bush administration in pushing NATO membership for Georgia.  The American people deserve to know exactly what risks the Obama administration plans to take with their lives and homelands before adding yet another fragile client state to Washington’s long list of security dependents.