MAD in the 21st Century
Mutually Assured Destruction may have been a sensible policy during the Cold War. It isn’t now.


Clifford D. May

On Tuesday, June 28, outside the holy city of Qom, the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran test-fired 14 ballistic missiles, including long- and medium-range Shahab missiles and short-range Zelzal missiles. Also near Qom, new and improved centrifuges are turning out more enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

In addition, departing defense secretary Robert Gates noted last month that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development “now constitute[] a direct threat to the United States. . . . They are developing a road-mobile [intercontinental ballistic missile]. . . . It’s a huge problem.”

For national-security experts, these developments raise a list of troubling questions. For the rest of us, they should raise just two: Do Iran and North Korea represent threats we should take seriously? The answer, clearly, is yes. Are we building the missile-defense system we need to protect America against these threats? The answer, just as clearly, is no.

To understand how this situation has come about, recall a little history. During the Cold War, the United States adopted a strategic doctrine called MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The logic behind it was both perverse and compelling: So long as we were vulnerable to missile attack by the Soviets, and so long as the Soviets were vulnerable to missile attack by us, neither side would benefit by attacking first — on the contrary, a devastating retaliation would be assured. Assuming that both we and the Soviets were rational, the result would be a standoff, stability, and peaceful coexistence.

Veterans of the Cold War, still influential in the foreign-policy establishment and the Obama administration, believe that if this kind of deterrence worked then, it can work now.

The current occupants of the Kremlin go farther. They claim it is destabilizing and provocative for Americans and Europeans to attempt to protect themselves from the possibility of an Iranian or North Korean missile attack by building a missile-defense system that may one day be robust enough also to thwart a Russian missile attack. “If NATO wants to reduce tension with Russia,” Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to the Atlantic alliance recently said, “it should cancel the missile-defense project. We have always criticized these plans as deeply anti-Russian.”

Missile-defense advocates — I list myself among them — counter that MAD is an idea whose time has come and gone. The regime that rules Iran appears to view nuclear weapons and missile development as its highest priority, worth the pain being inflicted by a growing catalogue of international sanctions. It proclaims that “a world without America . . . is attainable.” More than a few of Iran’s rulers hold the theological conviction that the return of the Mahdi, the savior, can be brought about only by an apocalypse. As scholar Bernard Lewis has aptly phrased it, for those who share the views of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “Mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent. It is an inducement.”

As for the authoritarian regime that rules Russia, it is not America’s enemy, but neither is it likely to become an ally anytime soon — no matter how hard the Obama administration tries to “reset” relations. What’s more, the Kremlin has been actively assisting Iran.

Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. should create a missile-defense “umbrella” that would protect not only American citizens at home and American forces abroad but also America’s allies. But such a project is not in development. And some say, given the state of the economy, we can’t afford it now.

Three reasons I disagree: (1) If just one American city should be hit by just one missile, the cost — not merely in dollars — will be far greater than that of any missile-defense system being contemplated. And it would require only a single enemy missile to stage an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, which could cripple the United States for years. (2) Deploying a comprehensive missile-defense system would dramatically alter the strategic environment. The rationale for building nuclear-armed ballistic missiles for offensive purposes disappears if it is clear the U.S. has both the will and a way to prevent those weapons from reaching their targets. At the moment, the incentives are reversed: Moammar Qaddafi gives up his nuclear weapons, and NATO tries to kill him. The North Koreans refuse to give up their nuclear weapons, and we leave them alone no matter what they do. (3) The cost need not be exorbitant. Our missile-defense architecture is made up of various systems — some can be cut.