MAD in the 21st Century
By Clifford D. May
Why Mutually Assured Destruction makes no sense today
On June 28th, Iran’s rulers test-fired 14 ballistic missiles, including long- and medium-range Shahab missiles and short-range Zelzal missiles. Also, their 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 constitutes a direct threat to the United States. …They are developing a road-mobile ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). … It’s a huge problem.”
For national security experts, these developments raise a list of 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, recall a little history. During the Cold War, the U.S. adopted a strategic doctrine called MAD, for Mutually Assured Destruction. The logic behind it: 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.
Veterans of the Cold War, still influential in the Obama administration, believe that if this kind of deterrence worked then, it can work now.
The current occupants of the Kremlin go further. They claim it is insulting 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 one day may be robust enough also to thwart a Russian missile attack.
“If NATO wants to reduce tension with Russia,” Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO recently said, “it should cancel the missile defense project. We have always criticized these plans as deeply anti-Russian.”
Missile defense advocates 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 American …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 phrased it, for those share the views of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent. It’s an inducement.”
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: