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The Confidence Game

Washington Diarist

Thirty years ago I wrote a tiny book in defense of nuclear deterrence. Against the nuclear freezers and the nuclear war-fighters, deterrence was not hard to defend: my argument was drearily sensible. But I was nervously aware that I was urging good sense about a strategic situation that was senseless, because it was premised upon the credibility of a threat of holocaust. I was careful to note my discomfort in my book: deterrence, I said, may be supported but not celebrated, because it is another term for an unprecedentedly lethal danger, which it elects to manage rather than to abolish. I was uneasy with the commonplace notion that deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union “worked,” because this was impossible to verify. Having furiously attacked E.P. Thompson (thereby provoking a long response from him to “the little blue book of Chairman Wieseltier”—a fine souvenir of battle), I nonetheless cited with approval his remark that deterrence is “a counter-factual proposition that does not admit of proof.” I had no doubt that the absence of a thermonuclear confrontation between the superpowers was not least a matter of luck. So much could have gone cataclysmically wrong. The challenge was to defend deterrence uncomplacently, in full consciousness of its fragility; and a few years later my insistence upon intellectually troubled deterrence led me to publish an article in Foreign Affairs called “When Deterrence Fails.” That contingency, it seemed to me, had to be confronted. My piece consisted mainly in some inexpert thoughts about war termination, following a suggestion by Bernard Brodie in a paper he wrote not long before he died. Many people who liked my book disliked my essay. By imagining the use of nuclear weapons I had blasphemed against its “unimaginability,” and against the dogma of deterrence that (as I summarized it) “you cannot consider the possibility that deterrence may fail without contributing to the likelihood of its failure.” But the twentieth century did not give one grounds to think only good thoughts about the world.

WE ARE NOW WITNESSING a revival of the complacent version of deterrence. The cause of the new faith in the perfect efficacy of nuclear weapons for the prevention of conflict is the specter of a military strike, by Israel or the United States, against the nuclear installations of Iran. The discussion of the military option, writes Paul Pillar in The Washington Monthly, is “not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons ... but an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume,” because “the principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.” In The American Prospect, Suzanne Maloney makes “the case for containing a nuclear Iran” in a comprehensive but confusing way. She contends that Obama’s “starry-eyed effort at engagement” has failed, and that the only solution lies in “launching direct dialogue between Washington and the Islamic Republic,” and that “a reinvestment in diplomacy is no guarantee of success.” Ruling out force and sanctions, she makes the bold recommendation that the administration “strive to move beyond P5+1,” and prepare to “live with a solution that constrained but did not extinguish Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” which is not obviously a solution at all. And on, Fareed Zakaria, Counselor-in-Waiting to the President, declares that “deterring Iran is the best option,” because deterrence’s “record is remarkable”: in the cold war, after all, “both sides were deterred.” “The prospect of destruction produces peace,” he asserts, citing as his authority Kenneth Waltz, “one of the most distinguished theorists of international relations.”

KENNETH WALTZ IS ALSO the author of a paper, published in 1981, with the immortal title “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better.” “Inferring expectations from past events and patterns,” Waltz concluded that “with more nuclear states the world will have a promising future,” because “nuclear weapons have never been used in a world in which two or more states possessed them.” Nuclear weapons make people rational, because all regimes wish to survive. As an example of an “irrational” leader (the skeptical quotation marks are his) wised up by perils to himself, Waltz cited Muammar Qaddafi, whose “sensitivity to costs” led him to be “forbearing and amenable to mediation.” This is the kind of faith in reason that gives rationalism a bad name. The belief in reason hardly entails the belief that the world is rational. And a look at Tacitus—who was not peer-reviewed, to be sure—should suffice to dispel this smugness about the psychology of power. I say Tacitus, because the destructive and self-destructive madmen in his pages did not wear turbans and beards. Sick minds have been distributed all across the human race, and nuclear weapons are the greatest gift ever given to sick minds, and sick minds sometimes come to power. Moreover, they sometimes hold worldviews that, in moments of anger or bliss, may weaken the appeal of logic. Who dares tell Israel that the president of Iran’s promise to incinerate it means nothing? Threat assessment is indeed a supremely empirical activity, but security planning can be crippled by a diminished sense of possibility. It is one of the stranger features of the debate about Iran’s nuclear program that people who are ordinarily anguished about nuclear proliferation can in this instance suddenly live with it. They lose sleep about Pakistan and North Korea, but about Iran slumber is an option. Pillar reassures his readers that “no regime in the history of the nuclear age has ever been known to transfer nuclear material to a non-state group.” What has been will always be. The unimaginability, again.

I CANNOT SAY with sufficient confidence that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be rational or right. There is too much information that I do not possess. I worry about the costs. I do not fear that the region would go to hell, because the Arab states would rejoice in such an action. (In this matter the leader of the Sunni bloc is the Jewish state.) But I do not know that Iran in its current political configuration will be deterred, and neither does anybody else.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.