Nukes Don't Kill, People Do

This is not the time for Americans or Israelis to argue foolishly on behalf of a 'nuclear weapons-free world,' which Obama favored at the outset of his presidency.

From the start of his presidency, Barack Obama has favored the creation of a "nuclear weapons-free world." Not only is this preference naive, it is undesirable in principle. In the particular case of Israel, any "successful" denuclearization could open the doors to escalating and irremediable enemy acts of aggression.

Risks of war are not generally heightened by presumed means of destruction. They are the consequence of assorted adversaries who may convincingly promise cooperation and coexistence, but who fervidly dream only of victory or conquest. Most worrisome are those leaders who might combine recalcitrance and nuclear capacity with irrationality.

For Israel, of course, the pertinent concern is now Iran. By themselves, nuclear weapons are not the core problem. These weapons are neither good, nor evil. In certain cases, they can provide the only credible basis for existentially viable deterrence. For Israel, nuclear weapons - about which information is either deliberately ambiguous, or selectively disclosed - can serve as indispensable impediments to major war.

The president of the United States should be looking toward a world that is freer of risks of war and terror. He should focus on an improved U.S. strategic doctrine that would target not only principal jihadist adversaries, but also still-prospective foes in Russia, North Korea, Iran and a possibly post-coup Pakistan. Any such doctrine could have profound and determinable security implications for Israel.

During the 1950s, the United States first began to codify various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar, and the enemy was the Soviet Union. American national security was openly premised on a strategic policy called "massive retaliation." Over time, that stance became "flexible response."

Today, the world reveals multiple and interpenetrating axes of real and potentially violent conflict. There are almost four times as many states as existed in 1945. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia, which after the fall of the Soviet Union assumed diminished importance in optimistic American strategic calculations, is once again a major security concern.

Russia's leaders have issued plainly belligerent declarations on the resumption of its long-range bomber flights, and on corollary intentions to expand production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Presently, Russian nuclearization proceeds with nary a nod of respect for President Obama's high-minded stance on a "nuclear weapons-free world". Quite the contrary.

The Russians are largely spurred on in their ambitious nuclear invigorations by an understandable fear of planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe. Such active defenses, at least in the Russian view, threaten the unassailable and mutually agreed-upon deterrence logic of "mutual vulnerability."

What should we do? This is the single most important question that needs to be asked, by the president of the United States, and also by his Republican opponents. In fact, unless they can all answer this existential question satisfactorily, nothing else in their respective platforms will matter at all. For Israel, the American answers to this core question will also have serious security implications.

There are answers. It is time to gather together America's best strategic thinkers, and put them to work on a present-day equivalent of the Manhattan Project. This time, the task would not be to develop any new form of super weapon; yet, such an undertaking should also not become a pretext for opposing nuclear weapons per se. Without a nuclear "balance of terror" during the Cold War, it is likely there would have been a third world war.

Among other things, an American strategic "brain trust" will need to consider controversial matters of nuclear targeting. These issues would concern basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities ("countervalue" targeting ), and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures ("counterforce" targeting ).

At a time when the American president draws strategic policy options from idealized assumptions about nuclear disarmament, and when his Republican opponents ignore complex national defense subjects altogether, Americans need to understand that they are at renewed risk of unprecedented enemy attacks.

Israelis, too, should take note. For Israel, America's core ally in the Middle East, a similar risk of enemy aggression stems from the obvious interrelatedness of our national vulnerabilities, and from our sometimes interpenetrating strategic doctrines.

This is not the time for Americans or Israelis to argue foolishly on behalf of a "nuclear weapons-free world." It is time, however, for creating an improved and up-to-date U.S. strategic doctrine, a comprehensive and feasible plan that would jointly serve Washington's national security needs, and those of our critical allies in Jerusalem.

Louis René Beres is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war.