Nuclear Strategy

Those of you who have been following the stories about Iran's nuclear program might find yourselves confused about where you come down on the issue. Me, too.

Very often, such confusion stems from the way the question is asked. Re-frame the question, and the answer becomes apparent.

However, in this case, the question is the right one, and is plain enough: Which nations should be allowed to have nuclear weapons?

It's the answers that are confusing us. That's because nobody is giving the answer they really believe is correct.  And when a lot of people do that, things get confused.

So let me assist by giving the one true answer that works no matter whom you ask, and then we'll go from there.

Q: Which nations should be allowed to have nuclear weapons?

A: Nobody except us.

If you think about it, you'll realize that this is the only honest answer. And it's the same one everybody has in their heads but nobody will voice out loud.

So instead, we get answers like these:

- Only democracies

- Only democracies with certifiably free elections

- Only democracies with certifiably free elections except Israel

- Only members of the U.N. Security Council

- Not terrorists

- Not rogue nations

- Not infidels

- Only those who already have them, except India and Pakistan

- Only nations friendly to us

All of these are nonsense.

Nobody wants anybody else to have nuclear weapons. Period. End of story.

Not even our friends. If Canada decided to develop nukes, what do you think our reaction would be?

A: Excellent! Go for it! If you need any U-235, just let us know.

B: The hell you will.

What are the reasons we give whenever anybody else wants nukes? Pick one:

- You'll destabilize your region.

- You'll destabilize the world.

- You're a rogue nation too irresponsible to be trusted with them.

- You're an okay nation but you don't know how to secure those kinds of weapons.

- You're a terrorist.

- You do business with terrorists.

- Your uncle's barber's first cousin once knew a guy who knew a terrorist.

- If you get one, everybody else in your neighborhood is going to want one. It will escalate out of control.

- You don't need them. We'll protect you.

Usually it's the United States doing the talking. Which brings to mind two things the rest of the world tends to fire back at us:

A: Who says the U.S. can be trusted with them?

B: Who the hell is the U.S. to tell us anything?

All of this makes me realize that I made a mistake in the beginning. It really is about the question after all. We're asking the wrong one.

We ask:

Q: Which nations should be allowed to have nuclear weapons?

 …when what we should be asking is:

Q: How do we stop everybody else from getting nuclear weapons?

Because that's how we're playing it, despite our self-delusion.

So now what? How do we stop the other guys?

It isn't easy. But let us count the ways, of which there are basically two:

Plan A: We give up ours and you give up yours. Everybody gets to inspect everybody else to make sure they're really playing ball.

Plan B: Threaten everybody with everything. "Everybody" includes nations that supply parts and fuel and knowledge, nations that want to build weapons., and nations that succeed. "Everything" includes sanctions first, followed by invading and trashing their country.

Since we're currently operating under Plan B, let's take a look at how it's going:

- Threaten nations that supply parts and fuel: We don't know much about who's really buying what from whom, as proven by our reliance on a forged document about a non-existent African uranium buy to justify the Iraqi war. We do know that "rogue" nations buy from places like North Korea and Syria, over which we have less control than we do over Pakistan and India.

- Threaten nations that supply knowledge: This is difficult, because there are thousands and thousands of foreign physics students. Most of them are in U.S. universities. That makes the tactic of threatening nations that supply knowledge a little dicey.

- Threaten nations that want to build weapons: We're trying this now. One lesson we're learning is that, when employing this strategy, it pays to be right about their nuclear weapons program. Having learned this one the hard way, it's not clear we're going to be able to do it again in the near future.

- Threaten nations that do build weapons: We threatened Pakistan that if it tested nuclear weapons we'd strangle their economy. They tested weapons and we didn't do anything. We threatened India that if it tested nuclear weapons we'd strangle their economy. They tested weapons and we sent about half a million hi-tech jobs to them. So it doesn't appear this is such a good strategy either.

This leaves us with Plan A, in which we offer to disarm in exchange for everybody else disarming. Not a bad idea, except when "we" means "us." It seems to be a good idea mostly for everybody else, even though we're still the only country in history ever to use nukes in anger, on  civilians, and not once but twice.

So it looks like we'll be continuing down the Plan B path for a while.

Keep your fingers crossed.

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