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Intervention and Counterproliferation

May 23, 2011

Numerous commentators and analysts have long pointed out the incoherent pattern of US interventions with regards to its stated counter-proliferation objectives. Although counter-proliferation certainly has dropped low on the list of US objectives in recent times, the President and numerous respected officials in the national security community had, for the past few years, been talking about steps towards Global Zero. Much of Obama’s national security credentials in the Senate came from his work on nonproliferation.

Obama, like other US Presidents, has continued a tradition of failing to adequately calibrate interventions with nuclear nonproliferation goals. The invasion of Iraq, ostensibly a preventative or preemptive strike, struck a country whose WMD program was a farce intended to deter its neighbor. That country, Iran, turned out to have the much more advanced nuclear program, and has steadily enhanced its capabilities, though whether Iran becomes a virtual or actual nuclear weapons state remains unclear.

During the war in Iraq, North Korea has started a nuclear program. Despite its relatively crude state, with less-than-stellar ICBM tests and low warhead yields, the DPRK has still been able to get away with extremely provocative acts, such as sinking ROK ships and shelling its territory. Of course, this is not to say intervention is necessarily the best form of counterproliferation – it is obviously not, and it has a relatively poor record. Israel’s strikes on Osirak did not inflict mortal blows to Iraq’s nuclear program, while the all-out invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a prime example of the potential disasters of preemptive warfare. Plans for using military force to disarm Iran walk a similar line between inefficacy and overreaction.

So far, the record is that states which anger the West, and have either given up (Libya) or have illusory (Iraq) nuclear programs are prime targets for intervention. States with active or more credible nuclear programs get away without intervention and even receive calls for accommodation. Knowing this, states of other regimes have a very strong, if unintended, signal that acquiring nuclear programs is a great way to scare off the Western world, and that giving them up is no guarantee of security.

The nuclear arsenals of small countries have never been sufficient for deterring a superpower in the context of a nuclear war. Because of that, whatever progress the US, Russia, and other states make on nuclear disarmament, the incentive for lesser states to act similarly is not really affected. Nuclear weapons are, besides symbols of national pride, a good deterrent both against non-superpower rivals and the conventional forces of a superpower. In part because public rhetoric vastly overstates the destructive power of a small state’s nuclear arms, the idea of initiating a conflict which begins climbing the higher rungs of the escalation ladder becomes “unthinkable” for policymaker.

It is one thing to sail a CVBG or put local ground and air forces on alert in a crisis. It is another to declare intent and begin an operation to use those assets. If, in some future conflict, the US and allied nations sought to overthrow the regime in Pyongyang or Tehran, or take military actions leading decision-makers in those countries to believe that was the case, a nuclear weapon could cause enormous battlefield losses and severely disrupt the invasion operation. Of course, the US could respond with overwhelming nuclear force, but the US would also have to consider the risks of superpower escalation, or of managing a limited nuclear war. Some American policymakers would undoubtedly feel squeamish at voluntarily using nuclear retaliations which would kill large numbers of civilians and be potentially genocidal in the eyes of the rest of the world. These are not happy scenarios to contemplate, and because of that, intervention against a nuclear-armed minor power, even one that cannot hit the United States itself, is all the less likely.

Nuclear weapons are not an automatic guarantee of sovereignty and deterrence against all forms of US intervention, as Pakistan has found out. Yet they certainly take a large number of military choices off the menus of intervening powers, particularly as far as they concern wars of choice. Understandably, some discussion of nuclear proliferation considers the concerns of new nuclear states in the context of the nuclear hypocrisy on the part of countries such as the US. Why would anyone expect small states to listen to the moral and legal authority of countries which wrote the rules so that they could nave nuclear arms, and others could not (especially when these states sometimes let their friends get away with nuclear proliferation themselves)? But no state embarks on a nuclear program to point out moral hypocrisy or legal inconsistency. They do it in service of perceived national interests and desires to defend their own sovereignty and increase their freedom of action against other states.

To the extent supporters of intervention – whether against dictators, sponsors of terror, rogue states, or other threats – continue this pattern of military intervention with a softer approach to potential nuclear states, they create an incoherent grand strategy. They also strengthen the case of hawks who argue for preemptive or preventative strikes on potential nuclear states. Supporters of these other, more politically palatable forms of intervention may not see themselves in the same camp as those who call for bombing Iran or North Korea. But the perception that vital US interests include the need to conduct regime change operations or otherwise strip sovereignty from unsavory states at will is inextricable from the threat the US perceives from minor nuclear states. Extending US interests everywhere and inflating the importance of wars of choice contributes to both threat proliferation and threat inflation, as more states seek deterrents against intervention and each state which does so successfully becomes a threat to our “vital interests” even if their nuclear arsenal has minimal capabilities.

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