Why Fear of Nuclear Threatens National Security and World Peace
By Michael Shellenberger
By calling off a planned US military attack on Iran, President Donald Trump may have averted terrorist attacks on Americans and a wider war in the Middle East.
“Shiite militias could overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and seize hostages,” experts told NBC. “Hezbollah, which, before 9/11, had killed more Americans than any other terror group, could strike in places as far-flung as Latin America.”
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US military attacks against Iran could easily escalate into a wider conflict. While some wars are planned, others result from each side retaliating in ways it views as proportionate but viewed by the other side as disproportionate.
However it starts, a US war in Iran would likely be even more catastrophic than the 2003 US invasion of Iraq which resulted in the killing of a half-million Iraqis, the deaths of over 4,000 US service members, and a 10-fold increase in terrorist attacks.
While the George W. Bush administration had various motives to invade, the fear that Iraq was close to getting a nuclear weapon motivated elites, and US Senators, to back the invasion.
“The truth is,” President Bush’s national security advisor, Paul Wolfowitz, told a journalist, “we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.”
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations that Iraq was “determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb” and “has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries.”
Now, many hawks, including Trump’s National Security advisor, John Bolton, are stoking fears of Iran’s nuclear energy program in order to make the case for a military attack.
A “nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to international peace and security,” argues Georgetown University’s Matthew Kroenig, “and embolden Iran to step up support to terrorist groups and otherwise throw its weight around the region.”
While Bolton, Kroenig, and other hawks are the most prominent advocates of attacking Iran, their argument is given mainstream legitimacy by liberal nonproliferation advocates, including many supposed doves, who feed the widespread belief that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten the US.
How the Fear of Nuclear Results in War
The disastrous US military invasion of Iraq might not have happened had it not been supported by prominent liberals including then-Senator Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore. While 22 Democratic Senators voted against the 2002 resolution authorizing the US invasion, 29 of them voted for it.
It wasn’t the first time that prominent liberals advocated war to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1948, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, called for the atomic bombing of the Soviet Union. “Lord Russell said that an atomic war would be one of extraordinary horror,” reported The New York Times, “but it would be ‘the war to end wars.’”
Russell, a supposed pacifist, was the world’s most prominent opponent of nuclear weapons. Russell insisted that nuclear deterrence — the use of atomic bombs to frighten enemies — could not prevent war.
Hamilton Holt, another supposed peace activist, argued that any nation that rejected United Nations control over atomic energy “should be wiped off the face of the earth with atomic bombs.”
The father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, who cultivated his image as a lover of peace, and opposed the creation of the hydrogen bomb, also called for atomic war against the Soviet Union.
“[W]e can’t just sit by while a potential enemy builds up the means of certain destruction,” he reportedly told a journalist for the Saturday Evening Post. “Oppie’s line, to put it bluntly, was something damned close to preventive war.”
Nuclear weapons created severe distress for elites who had for centuries sent the children of the lower classes to fight wars abroad with little fear that they might suffer the consequences.
Over the following decades, hawks and doves tried to resolve their atomic anxieties in different ways. Conservatives advocated the creation of weapons capable of knocking out an enemy’s arsenal before he could use it. Liberals advocated world government control over nuclear energy.
Both efforts were doomed to fail. The nature of nuclear weapons makes it impossible to either ban the bomb or wipe out an enemy’s arsenal. Nuclear deterrence was unavoidable.
Hawks and doves have long found common ground opposing the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states. These efforts were benevolent and pragmatic when they took the form of extending the US nuclear shield to European and Asian allies after World War II. But by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nonproliferation efforts had become catastrophically violent and counterproductive.
Military hawks and nonproliferation doves gain political power by frightening journalists, policymakers, and the public into believing that Iran would attack the US with nuclear weapons, but even hardliners agree that if Iran got the bomb, it would use it the same way all nations do: for self-defense.
The Iranian regime is not suicidal and would thus not use it to attack anyone, least of all Israel, which has been nuclear-armed since the sixties. What of Iran’s support for terrorists? The father of international relations, Kenneth Waltz, argued that if Iran got the bomb it would likely scale back its support for terrorist groups in order to avoid the risk of nuclear retaliation.
Even the leading scholarly advocate of bombing Iran admits that it wouldn’t dare give a nuclear weapon to terrorists. “Nuclear weapons and terrorist groups have both existed for nearly seventy years, and no state has ever provided nuclear capabilities to a terrorist organization,” writes Georgetown’s Kroenig. “It is likely that Iran would show similar restraint.”
Why, then, do hawks demand military action to prevent Iran from getting the bomb? Because a nuclear-armed Iran would prevent the US military from being able to… invade Iran. “[P]ower projecting states [like the U.S.] are threatened by nuclear proliferation primarily because the spread of nuclear weapons constrains their conventional military freedom of action,” writes Kroenig.
Beyond Nuclear Fear
For two decades after World War II, leading minds in Europe and the US believed nuclear war was all but inevitable. “Within, at the most, ten years, some of those nuclear bombs are going off,” wrote prominent British scientist C.P. Snow in 1960. “That is the certainty.” In 1963, Russell told Playboy, “The human race may well become extinct before the end of the century.”
Such statements were made not only by idealistic scientists but also by leading experts. “The world is moving ineluctably towards a third world war — a strategic nuclear war,” claimed the founder of the realist school of political science, Hans Morgenthau, in 1979. “I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it.”
Advocates of nonproliferation feed these fears. “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped,” said President Barack Obama in 2009. “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for, if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”
But it’s the belief that the spread of weapons could be stopped, not supposed fatalism, that has proven to be deadly. Where efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to Iraq resulted in the deaths of a half-million people, the spread of nuclear weapons has resulted in what Yale University historian John Gaddis calls “the long peace.”
“It seems inescapable that what has really made the difference in inducing this unaccustomed caution has been the workings of the nuclear deterrent,” wrote Gaddis.
The same arguments today being made to prevent Iran from getting a bomb were made against India and Pakistan getting one in the early 1990s. “There is a high risk of nuclear weapons being used,” warned a prominent national security expert in 1991. Why? Because “many of the political, technical, and situational roots of stable nuclear deterrence between the US and the Soviet Union may be absent in South Asia, the Middle East or other regions to which nuclear weapons are spreading.”
That proved to be nonsense. India and Pakistan have frightened each other into peace, just as the US and the Soviet Union did.
“In South Asia,” says India-Pakistan nuclear expert, Sumit Ganguly, nuclear weapons have “for all practical purposes, done away with the prospect of full-scale war. It’s just not going to happen. The risks are so great as a consequence of the nuclearization of the subcontinent that neither side can seriously contemplate starting a war.”
Some amount of fear of nuclear weapons is necessary for nuclear deterrence to work. If we didn’t fear nuclear weapons, we wouldn’t show so much restraint in using them.
But the catastrophic US invasion of Iraq teaches us that our nuclear fears can easily become self-destructive when left unchecked. In a country like the US, which has long been prone to historical amnesia, there is a growing risk that we could stumble into yet another war in the Middle East.
The New York Times reports that the Fox News host Tucker Carlson helped persuade President Trump to avoid the military confrontation with Iran that Bolton has long urged. While reassuring, it’s disturbing that Carlson was virtually alone in doing so among Trump’s advisors.
Yesterday, Carlson savaged Bolton’s terrible foreign policy record, particularly his advocacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bolton, like many in the foreign policy establishment, pompously claimed that the situation there was more “complex” than Carlson understood.
Trump’s near-attack on Iran is a good reminder that those who advocate military action when none is required pose a grave threat to national security and world peace. Ironically, they also provide further motivation to nations like Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon for self-defense.
In that sense, hawkish national security experts and nuclear nonproliferation advocates have a lot in common with environmentalists who oppose the use of nuclear energy to combat climate change. All three groups claim to offer solutions to problems that they more than anyone else have helped to create.