There is a great deal of symbolism in the fact that Robert McNamara died on the day U.S. President Barack Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss limiting the two countries' number of nuclear weapons. McNamara, among the most notable of America's defense secretaries, formulated the main points in U.S. nuclear policy, which became the basis for strategic balance during the Cold War.
McNamara was also the architect of the notorious Vietnam War, but his greatest contribution was the development of thought concerning nuclear weapons and his ability to persuade American military leaders, and subsequently Soviet leaders, to adopt his conclusions. It was not easy to deal with the powerful U.S. military establishment because he was leading policy in directions American generals perceived as illogical and even defeatist.
Quite early in his term as defense secretary, McNamara concluded that it would be impossible to win a nuclear war, or to conduct a limited nuclear conflict. Each side's huge arsenal of nuclear warheads would totally annihilate the other.
He concluded that the only way to prevent the adversary from using his nuclear weapons was to deter him and make clear that even if he managed a surprise preemptive strike, his utter destruction would be assured. To ensure total destruction, each power developed a "second strike capability" - a weapon that would survive attack and wipe out the attacker.
McNamara also persuaded the military establishment to stop developing anti-ballistic missile systems. That was a harder task. He based his argument on the fact that a defense system could never provide complete protection. A study by American security officials had found that even using a very efficient defense system, some 60 million Americans would die. Therefore, McNamara said, deterrence should take precedence over defense. That was the rationale behind the policy of "mutually assured destruction." After heated debate, the U.S. military brass and Lyndon Johnson were persuaded; a number of years later, so were the Soviets. In 1972, the United States and Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, under which each side gave up developing defensive systems against the other's ballistic missiles.
What relevance does McNamara's legacy hold for us? If Iran attains nuclear weapons, the cost of a strike by these weapons penetrating Israeli defenses would be even more intolerable than in the American case. There will therefore be no choice but to base our policy against the Iranian threat on deterrence instead of defense.
We will also have to learn from the American case how to attain stable deterrence and prevent a mistake that would lead to undesired launches. Iran does not know Israel, but (if foreign reports are true about Israel's nuclear capability), from the moment the nuclear threat is mutual, it will be in Iran's interest to prevent nuclear war from breaking out accidently. They will understand that the cost of such a war would be intolerable. Mutual deterrence and mutually assured destruction would be the basis for strategic balance between Israel and a nuclear Iran.
Following McNamara's death, one of his most important diagnoses should be adopted: "Nuclear weapons serve no military purposes whatsoever. They are totally useless - except only to deter one's opponent from using them."
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