Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Picking on Lind and Nuclear Abolition

Once again, Michael Lind of Salon brings out my inner realist. Two weeks ago, I spewed about his piece on Pax Americana. Today, he uses Obama's Nobel Prize to justify a discussion about nuclear abolition. His basic argument is that the US would have greater superiority in a conventional world whereas the nukes are weapons of the weak--especially bad guys. Then, he recognizes the reality that nuclear abolition is not going to happen. So, this provocative and clearly unsound thesis is just the premise for a discussion about proliferation today.

He then uses the past projections of proliferation and nuclear use to pooh pooh the concerns of proliferation pessimists (as they are called in the poli sci lit (see Scott Sagan's debate with Ken Waltz).

Here is one of the stranger quotes:
Genuine great power status today requires massive, expensive conventional forces. Iran would be much more alarming if instead of trying to obtain nuclear weapons it were building up a first-rate navy, a long-distance air force and an enormous army capable of occupying one or more of its neighbors. The fact that it is not doing so suggests that the nuclear weapons capability it evidently seeks is for deterrence, not offense.
This is true but almost entirely irrelevant. We don't care about Iran because it is a great power or is becoming one. It is a regional power in a region we care about. And it has a history of supporting terrorism--much more so than Iraq ever did. We care about its development of nuclear weapons not so much because of its offensive threat (although we have to take that possibility seriously) but because of how it affects other countries in the region--the security dilemma is an action-reaction dynamic.

Next contentious quote:
Why should a terrorist go to the trouble of trying to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the U.S., when it is easier to spread mass panic with guns, backpack explosives, suicide bomber belts or truck bombs?
While one create sustained panic via a campaign of low level violence, it is clear that some terrorists, especially AQ, seek large-scale, dramatic events that capture cameras and networks around the world. All other terrorist events pale in comparison to 9/11, and a nuclear device in a major city would make 9/11 pale in comparison to that. Again, not a high probability event, but something we need to take seriously. Not invade Iraq seriously, but seriously nonetheless.

One more:
I think of it as the mutant factor. Weapons that conceivably could produce a ravaged landscape populated by cannibal mutant zombies -- atomic bombs, lab-created pandemics -- are far more frightening than dynamite and small arms, even though the latter are more likely to be used.
Well, now he is on to something. We are concerned about nuclear weapons because they might cause zombies..... Well, my blog attests, I am quite concerned about the zombie threat, but not really because of nuclear weapons. For some reason, I think that a weapon that can kill 50,000 people in a heartbeat might be a legitimate concern, whether or not it turns people into zombies.

And now, he goes after the experts:

My point is that, in our age of publicity-driven policy advocacy, experts who inflate threats obtain grants and get on TV. For a specialist to say, "Having examined the issue carefully, my conclusion is that we should not be overly concerned" is not only career suicide but also heresy. The patron saint of this day and age is Our Lady of Perpetual Alarm.
Um, ok, he has a point there since my friends will always remember the day I suggested that Lubbock might be a target of terrorism. Well, only because I was thinking Oklahoma City and abortion clinics. And I am not an expert on nuclear weapons, terrorism or proliferation. But he is ignoring the experts who have downplayed the treat of chemical and biological weapons. He even cites experts who say that terrorists are unlikely to build their own nuclear weapons. And, of course, he mentions not at all Pakistan:

  • Pakistan lionizes the father of its nuclear weapons program and who was trying to become the Amway salesman of nuclear weapons technology.
  • Pakistan is a very fragile country with its own civil war, so that its nuclear weapons can fall in the wrong hands.
  • Pakistan does not even really control segments of its own military, not a good recipe for control over its nuclear stockpile.
  • Pakistan is engaged in an enduring rivalry/protracted conflict/endless pissing-match with its immediate and nuclearly armed neighbor.
So, perhaps the lesson to be learned is that I should stop reading Lind?

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