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July 30, 2004

Cold war: Reloaded

With all the news about the hot war in Iraq and the warm war in Afghanistan (not to mention the political battle at home), few have noticed that a new cold war has begin. Slate's Fred Kaplan has, and North Korea is the new Soviet Union.

In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The treaty prevents each side from deploying defense systems which could shoot down nuclear missiles as they approach the home country. It may seem surprising that Nixon would agree to leave the US open to nuclear attack, but in actuality this treaty is a logical agreement to prevent each side engaging in an arms race neither can win.

The fundamental problem, without this treaty in place, is that it's far cheaper to build missiles than it is to build missile defenses. If one side builds, say, four anti-missile silos, then the other just needs to build five missiles and launch them simultaneously. In fact, to guarantee a hit, the offensive side must launch multiple missiles for a strike for a strike to be effective. Anti-missile systems are not 100% effective, so many of these will get through.

Basically, this means that the Hiroshima solution for ending a war is no longer an option. It's all-out annihilation, or it's nothing.

Despite this scenario of mutually-assured destruction, the Bush administration has abandoned the sound principles of the ABM treaty and has quietly deployed one anti-missile interceptor in Alaska (which is on the flight path from Korea). To counter this, North Korea needs to simply build two missiles. We can build more interceptors, of course, but it's easier and much cheaper to build missiles than the network of ground-based and space-based systems necessary to thwart an attack.

And so, it begins. With the third front now open, we now have wars hot, warm, and cold.

Posted by david at July 30, 2004 02:46 PM | TrackBack
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I don't disagree with Kaplan's larger point, or your gloss on them. (And I certainly think this should be bigger news than it has been so far.) But the reason the ABM treaty was so wise during the Cold War was that the Russians were similarly vulnerable to attack (lots of "good targets," as Rummy would say). Although our ABM capability may make Kim Jong Il want more missles, there's no sign he's in a position to proliferate that prolifically. More importantly, in the whole game-theory side of the argument he may not have expectations or concerns that are symmetric to ours.

I mean, sure, he doesn't want us to level N. Korea. But his country is almost a wasteland already. And as he has displayed such total disregard for the health and well-being of his subjects, can we really assume he wouldn't risk them for the thrill of lobbing a Big One at us? He will be deep in a bunker somewhere--what's another million compared to the million's he has starved? I think the biggest risk is that he could wake up one morning, realize there's no endgame where he continues to be worshipped by his terrified masses, and just hits the button. The question of how many ABMs we have doesn't really factor into that.

Of all the foreign-policy fuckups we've suffered at Bush's hand, I have to say that W and Kim and not a bad match: two crazy muthas staring each other down has its own kind of Mutually Assured inertia. Each one deeply suspects the other is (clinically speaking) an utter whack job, and on perhaps this point alone I think most of the world agrees with them both.

And while I think Kaplan is right to highlight the danger in the kind of wide-scale deployment W wants, and while I expect that when (not if--I'm a pessimist on this) someone nukes us it will be in a cargo container or private plane, I don't know that the idea of a rogue missle is implausible or that defending against them is entirely stupid. But, by definitions, 50 missles isn't "rogue." I would submit that 50 missles is "what we should have dealt with while we were botching Iraq."

Sitting here within reach of Kim's missles, I can't say I'm completely upset to have a little Star Wars up in Alaska. I just pray we never have to spend the 6 scariest minutes in our lives wondering if it will work.

So I'm not sure that the administration has "abandoned the sounds principles of the ABM treaty" so much as the world and its strategic configuration have moved on (probably a little of both). It would be great if they would concentrate on the more mundane port-and-border security issues as well as the expensive, high-tech, and ultimately phallic ABM approach.

Posted by: jay on July 30, 2004 03:50 PM
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