Seeking Invulnerability

7 August 2006

Seeking Invulnerability

By Gwynne Dyer

The three most ill-considered (and probably doomed) political enterprises on the international political scene today are the Israeli assault on Lebanon, the US campaign to force Iran to renounce its alleged nuclear weapons programme, and the similar campaign that has been mounted against North Korea. What common theme unites these three enterprises? The quest for invulnerability for one side, at the expense of total vulnerability for the other.

Between 1945 and about 1970, the United States went through one of the most difficult intellectual and emotional transitions in history. The US began that period as the home of almost half the world’s surviving industrial capacity and the sole possessor of the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb. It was unchallengeable and invulnerable. Yet by 1970 it was ready to concede nuclear weapons parity to the Soviet Union, an openly hostile totalitarian state, and was negotiating arms-control agreements that limited missile numbers but guaranteed the Soviets the ability to destroy the United States.

That was logical and necessary, because you couldn’t stop the Russians from building more and bigger nuclear weapons. America’s military thinkers had grasped the essential fact that no number of nuclear weapons on their side, however large, could stop an enemy with the ability to deliver even a few hundred nukes from effectively destroying their country.

The enemy would also be destroyed by US retaliation, of course, so let’s work with that fact. Let us stabilise the US-Soviet relationship by accepting this unavoidable situation of mutual vulnerability — Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), as one critic of the policy named it — and even enshrining it in international treaties. It made good strategic sense, and it may well have saved the world from a nuclear war.

Accepting America’s vulnerability was so emotionally repugnant that many leading politicians and generals spent the rest of their careers promoting new technologies like “Star Wars” that they hoped might restore US invulnerability, but most of the US political and military elite had the wisdom and maturity to support the policy. America could use their like today. So could Israel.

Israel’s period of invulnerability began later, after the 1973 war, and has lasted far longer. No combination of Arab armies can defeat Israel in war, or even inflict major casualties on it. And should Israeli generals ever prove so incompetent that Arab armies did make a little headway, Israel still has its regional nuclear weapons monopoly forty years after developing the things. (America lost its own nuclear monopoly after only four years in its confrontation with the Soviet Union.)

Israel faces a bigger “terrorist threat” than the US, but it is still a pretty marginal concern. Hezbollah’s activities on Israel’s northern borders were an occasional nuisance, but until Israel’s quite deliberate over-reaction to its hostage-seizure operation on 12 July — bombing targets all across Lebanon — it had not fired rockets at Israeli towns in years. Hezbollah had the capability to do that, so Israel was theoretically vulnerable (though not very, since the rockets hardly ever hit anyone), but it wasn’t actually doing it.

In one sense, this war is an absurd attempt to eliminate that last little vulnerability by grossly disproportionate means. In a more serious sense, it is driven by the Israeli military’s desire to “reestablish deterrence”: that is, to demonstrate anew that Israel can respond with grossly disproportionate violence to any provocation, spreading death and destruction far beyond the location of the original offence.

But that is another way of saying that it wants to show that everybody else in the region is completely vulnerable to its power, completely insecure. There is no stability in such a relationship, as the past forty years have amply demonstrated, and in any case, this time deterrence will not be reestablished. Israel is unable to eliminate Hezbollah, and its attack merely highlights the limitations of Israeli military power when deployed against non-state opponents.

Now come to the United States and its flailing pseudo-diplomatic attempts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — or, indeed, its equally ham-fisted attempts to force North Korea to give up the nukes it claims to have already built. The tactics it has adopted are as ignorant of the opposing side’s psychology as they are revealing of its own.

The US has made blocking the nuclear weapons ambitions of these two countries an absolute priority in its foreign policy, because it will no longer accept even the slightest vulnerability to countries or forces it sees as hostile. In these two cases, it may well be an achievable goal, since their putative bombs are probably just bargaining chips. You can’t be sure, but it’s certainly worth finding out.

The US is not negotiating with 75 million Iranians or 25 million North Koreans. It is (or rather, it should be) negotiating with the senior clerics around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, and with the senior people around Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang, both of whom are primarily interested in regime survival, not in nuclear weapons. Yet the Bush administration seems oblivious to the fact that THEY feel insecure.

America’s vulnerability is tiny; theirs is almost total. It would be worthwhile to offer both of them a commitment that the US will stop trying to overthrow their regimes, and leave their fate in the hands of their own peoples, in return for renouncing their nuclear weapons ambitions. It worked with Libya’s Gaddafy, after all. What is truly astonishing is that this approach has simply not been tried with either North Korea or Iran.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“The enemy…war”; and “The US…finding out”)