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Deterrence is for dummies

As India weighs nuclear tests, it?s plain that WMD alone cannot deter superpower attacks

india Updated: Apr 18, 2003 13:50 IST
By Praful Bidwai
By Praful Bidwai

As if the gross injustice of war and the blowing off of the brains and limbs of innocent civilians were not enough, invading Anglo-American troops have heaped further iniquity, injury and insult upon the Iraqi people through rank deceit, disinformation and outright plunder.

Twelve civilians have been killed in an unprovoked firing into a crowd in Mosul protesting a pro-US speech by the newly appointed governor. New disclosures suggest that the ‘turning-point’ incident on Day 21 of the war, in which Iraqis were shown rapturously welcoming the US military and toppling a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein at Baghdad’s Firdos Square, was stage-managed.

Photographs available at show that the original wide-angle shot of Firdos Square covering its entire expanse was deliberately cropped to hide the small numbers of Iraqis (a few dozen), and the surrounding Abrams tanks. The statue was pulled down using an armoured vehicle by American troops (who draped its head in the US flag), and not by Iraqis.

This was not a ‘spontaneous’ incident, unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall. The leading Iraqis involved are linked to Pentagon favourite and hitherto-exiled financial double-dealer, Ahmed Chalabi.

This deception is of a piece with stories about the ‘fall’ of Umm Qasr (reported nine times before it happened), the first week’s non-existent Basra ‘insurrection’ and ‘discovery’ of a chemical factory, and the ‘non-use’ of cluster bombs, etc. Its purpose was to announce the collapse of the Hussein regime.

However, what’s even worse is the US responsibility for, and complicity in, the pillage of priceless antiquities and irreplaceable books and manuscripts from Iraq’s National Museum and National Library. In the latter case, says The Independent’s Robert Fisk, US troops merely watched as mobs ransacked and thieved at will. The Museum, West Asia’s greatest trove of historical artefacts and the world’s richest record of the cradle of human civilisation, was picked clean by looters and professional smugglers.

Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter (April 11) quotes an eyewitness, who says US troops actively exhorted Iraqis to loot State buildings and facilitated the plunder. Earlier, by prematurely opening two Tigris bridges to civilian traffic, they allowed looters to race into Baghdad’s centre and extend “their plundering to the planning ministry and other buildings…” (Washington Post).

Top US leaders have rationalised this criminal pillage as an ‘untidy’ consequence of the worthy cause of ‘liberation’. This ‘untidiness’ contrasts sharply with the strict vigil over Iraq’s oil and interior ministry records. America’s priorities have less to do with the Iraqi people’s
urgent needs than with winning super-profitable corporate contracts and establishing puppet regimes.

Amidst this comes UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix’s assertion that the US and Britain ‘planned’ this war ‘well in advance’ — irrespective of what inspections would reveal about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The WMD was a mere pretext. So, unsurprisingly, none have been found in four weeks.

Even if some are ‘discovered’, their provenance will remain suspect for the global public. Worse, says Blix, the war is sending out ‘wrong signals’, like those North Korea has picked up: if you don’t have WMD, but ‘let in the inspectors,… you get attacked’.

So shocking is the spectacle unfolding in Iraq and so awful the US’s imperiousness — since extended through threats to Syria and Iran — that some people have started desperately looking for virtue in, of all things, WMD!

Their proposition goes thus: if Iraq really had powerful WMD, the US wouldn’t have risked attacking it. However evil, WMD can be instruments of national defence against empire. Nuclear weapons alone could guarantee that India or Pakistan won’t be targeted next by the US. We must keep and upgrade our nukes. Doesn’t North Korea, which has ‘successfully’ defied the US with ‘nuclear hardball’ tactics, prove that nuclear deterrence works?

New Delhi’s hawks have taken the cue and started mounting pressure to be allowed to conduct a new round of three nuclear tests, especially of the hydrogen bomb (which probably proved a dud in 1998). The usually reliable trade journal Nuclear Fuel reports this, citing US and Indian sources including the Department of Atomic Energy, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and Defence Research & Development Organisation.

The argument is based on speculative ‘what-if’ logic. It is spurious and dangerously wrong. Weapons, however important, don’t exclusively or primarily determine whether or not States go to war. Thus, the US’s nuclear weapons didn’t prevent China from entering the Korean War in 1950. Non-nuclear Vietnam gave nuclear China a bloody nose in 1979. And Argentina wasn’t deterred from fighting nuclear Britain in the Eighties. Equally, war outcomes are often settled by factors other than weapons superiority — as in Suez, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

North Korea isn’t quite ‘playing nuclear hardball’. It has no nuclear weapons, only nuclear spent fuel. It is threatening to restart a reactor closed under a 1994 agreement with the US — in a reckless attempt to drive a bargain (for a no-hostilities pact and money). Despite brink-manship, it is probably many months away from a first-generation nuclear weapon.

It is Pyongyang’s conventional weapons that worry the US: they can strike 30,000-plus American troops in the region. They can also target lakhs of civilians of key ally-States Japan and South Korea. Washington, preoccupied with Iraq, is willing to engage Pyongyang in talks (scheduled for next week). But it’s not hard to construct a scenario in which Washington coercively ‘takes out’ North Korea’s suspected WMD. These are no real deterrents.

Two questions are critically relevant to understanding deterrence. Does a WMD adversary have an
assured means of delivering the weapons? And does nuclear deterrence provide genuine security? The first demands that we follow the authentic logic of historical reconstruction. Delivery ability depends on a society’s overall technological capability, as well as its military preparedness.

In Iraq, the answer is simple: it had no delivery capability, even if it at maximum had some crude chemical or biological weapons (probably too unstable to kill massively), although no nuclear arms. Its airpower was decimated and its missiles too primitive to count. Its WMD could not have deterred America.

India and Pakistan admittedly possess mass-annihilation-capable nuclear weapons, but they belong to the same league as Iraq in respect of delivering them to the US. Even China has barely a dozen missiles that can reach continental America — never mind their accuracy. This doesn’t add up to an assured second-strike capability.

Even if it did — and even if India tests Agni-3, as it might this month — it would be foolhardy to rely on nuclear deterrence for security. This is a profoundly flawed doctrine. It assumes 100 per cent rational, cool-headed behaviour in panic-causing situations, and a total absence of misperception, misunderstanding or accidents in all circumstances.

Security through nuclear deterrence is a delusion. We know deterrence all but collapsed hundreds of times during the Cold War. It’s even more Ram bharose and unreliable in the India-Pakistan case. It would be suicidal to rely upon it.

India’s best interests — and the world’s — lie in fighting for universal, global WMD abolition, in conformity with international law spelt out by the World Court in 1996, and with commitments by the nuclear States in the 2000-NPT Review Conference. The only safe world is one without WMD, even in the hands of those who seek to disarm others, but not themselves. That’s the only antidote to imperial double standards.

India must test no more nuclear weapons or missiles. It should return to disarmament — and sanity.

First Published: Apr 18, 2003 00:33 IST