The Corner

Deterrence Lost?

In two previous posts, I’ve commented on the extraordinary new article by Ashton Carter, Michael May, and William Perry, “The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City.” Now I’d like to discuss the most troubling portion of the article, the section on “Retaliation and Deterrence.”

Carter, May, and Perry certainly gesture at the need for some sort of retaliation after a terrorist nuclear strike on U.S. soil–a strike they acknowledge would be “the most catastrophic single event in the nation’s history,” and an event that could put the very survival of America’s constitutional government into doubt. Here are some of their points on the need for retaliation:

…The threat of such retaliation might in fact deter North Korea or, in the future, perhaps Iran from using terrorists as a way to deliver nuclear weapons to U.S. soil…

…If North Korea sold fissile material or bombs to third parties, for example, it should be held accountable for the ultimate use of those ingredients of nuclear terrorism. The United States should make this clear to North Korea in advance…

…No government should believe it could attack the United States by using a terrorist group as a proxy and not be revealed and held accountable eventually.

So Carter, May, and Perry think it’s critical to make it clear to North Korea “in advance” that it will be held accountable for the use of any of its nuclear ingredients in a terrorist attack on the United States. Unfortunately, this entire line of thinking has already been turned into something of a joke by our failure to withdraw from our nuclear agreement with North Korea in the wake of their proliferation of nuclear material and expertise to Syria. Now that the affair is public, will anyone anywhere ever take seriously the notion that the United States will hold governments responsible for proliferating nuclear material?

Yes, the Bush administration has failed to hold North Korea responsible. Yet it’s clear that the Democratic establishment is delighted with our North Korean settlement and is eager to see such a settlement extended to Iran. Have a look at Jim Hoagland on the “North Korean Mystery.” Here’s how Hoagland rationalizes the need to uphold our nuclear agreement with North Korea despite their nuclear dalliance with Syria. What was motivating them, asks Hoagland:

A last gasp of North Korean international banditry before going straight on nuclear nonproliferation? A continuing confidence by Pyongyang that it can say one thing in public and do another covertly? Or simply the serendipity of one branch of a secretive government going about its skulduggery while others go a different way?

Hoagland throws out these possibilities as if any one of them would somehow justify our acting as if this flagrant violation of North Korea’s obligations had never taken place. Yet our capacity to offer this sort of rationalization makes nonsense of any retaliation-based strategy of deterrence for terrorist nuclear weapons. Indeed, a closer reading of Carter, May, and Perry shows that their own retaliatory strategy is likely to go out the window in the event of an actual nuclear blast on American soil. I’ll have more to say on that, shortly.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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