The Positive Side of Terrorists with Nukes


Obviously, there is nothing at all positive about the prospect of terrorists with nukes. And if this were not a blog for ideas, we could end the discussion right now, and go off to a comfortable and reassured dinner.

Instead, let us consider the small, nagging fact that, one day, terrorists are very likely to have nukes. It may come about through Pakistan; it may actually not be nukes, but rather terrorists in laboratories, cooking up biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But one way or another, someday, some potentially crazy person is going to have the ability to wipe out thousands if not millions with a roll of the dice. This is not Kim Jong-un of North Korea: this is Kim Jong-un on the subway, looking like an ordinary Joe.

We already know how to feel about that prospect. We’ve been rehearsing it for years. Terrorists with WMD means someone blowing up all of New York City instead of just the World Trade Center. Terrorists with WMD are bad, bad, bad.

There’s no doubt about one thing: what terrorists might do, in the worst case, is as bad as it gets. But, again, let’s not look for an excuse to stop thinking about it. A subject this scary deserves reflection.

One thing seems likely: not every terrorist is crazy. To place the matter in perspective, we do have precedent for one person making the decision to kill tens of thousands of civilians with a single stroke of the pen. That person, of course, was Harry Truman before the bombing of Hiroshima; and fourscore before him, using the technology of the day (with great property damage and considerable human abuse, but far fewer deaths), we had General Sherman’s March to the Sea – along with, of course, many other leaders down through history.

What if Hitler had acquired that power before Truman? He, like Truman, might have used it just once or twice. Just to make a point. That would probably have been enough to change history. Now that the technology has been shown to work, a clever terrorist of today, acquiring a nuke, might not have to use it at all. It might be sufficient to kidnap a nuclear weapons expert and obtain his/her videotaped confirmation that Sheikh X does have a certain piece of hardware, made in the U.S.A., with which the expert is very familiar. Indeed, it could be counterproductive to use the weapon. Once it’s gone, you have no further power to threaten.

So, then, suppose a very sane terrorist has acquired a nuke. What should s/he do with it? Threaten the U.S., perhaps, if that is his/her chief preoccupation. It continues to be a good idea for the U.S. to work toward lowering its profile as Terrorist Target No. 1. But who else might take our place?

I can think of a candidate. Let’s say that we are looking for another large, important nation, with its fingers in many pies, throwing its weight around, and alienating lots of people. Such a nation would obviously be a competitor against the U.S. As such, there would be people in the U.S. who might actually see some advantage in the acquisition of a nuke, by a sane terrorist whose principal grievances were not directed at America.

Those remarks call for a bit of context. Consider how things have turned out, so far, in what might someday be called Cold War II. In Cold War I, we prepared for the prospect of war against the Soviet Union. We were approaching the height of our wealth and confidence, having emerged from World War II as king of the hill. Europe, our dearest neighboring continent, was under threat. Mutual assured (nuclear) destruction (MAD) gave us an uneasy peace, but it was a peace that generally played to our favor. In short, we could live with Cold War I: we could continue to fight, in small and sometimes hot conflicts – and sometimes not so small, notably in Korea and Vietnam – and ultimately, with some painful exceptions, we emerged as the big guy, the world’s sole superpower.

Likewise, in Cold War II, we took a look at the prospect of war with China, and we said no thanks. After Korea, it was unlikely in any event that we would want another real war with them; and now, after a decade of grinding, draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is not even a bare possibility. We have had enough of that. East Asia is far from us. Its peoples are, for the most part, not our blood relatives. The notion that thousands of Americans would die to defend former enemy Vietnam against Chinese attack would be even more ironic than the notion that we would die to defend former enemy Germany against Russian invasion. No, in fact, it would be bizarre. It won’t happen anytime soon.

Not that Cold War II is completely over. Some may think it is only beginning, now that the Obama administration has commenced an American “pivot to Asia.” And in economic terms, we may just be starting to dig in and engage China seriously. But in military terms, the circumstances of that pivot have demonstrated its actual character: too little, too late. While it may not have been politically feasible, the urgent military precaution of the past decade was to build or reopen bases, not in Iraq, but in places like the Philippines. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that. China could now have been facing a South and Southeast Asia armed to the teeth, courtesy of an American military that would have had nowhere else to sink its fortune. China’s rise to the level of a competitor was nicely if inadvertently timed, allowing us to become heavily invested elsewhere.

Obama announced our pivot to Asia in the context of – would you believe – a placement of 2,500 Marines in Australia. This is a bit different from sending, say, 50,000 soldiers to Japan and other nations on the front lines against China. A so-called pivot to Asia, accompanied by deployment of 2,500 to a non-Asian continent, is not a complete joke. But it certainly does send a message. China’s press fumed, but meanwhile Xi Jinping (China’s new leader) had to be smiling at his own good fortune. If 2,500 Marines in Australia indicate America’s current concept of a military pivot or rebalancing, then China has been handed an engraved invitation. What Japan could not achieve in World War II – creating an empire that would dominate the South China Sea for a century – begins to appear feasible for China. Our response is, in effect, that we are tiptoeing toward offering protection to a land of white people, 2,000 miles away from all that.

There is another development. It may now be China’s turn to miscalculate. Specifically, it begins to appear that China wants war. Such a statement is never true of everyone in a country; it certainly is not true of all China. But it is true enough. Anti-Japanese riots have provided ample evidence, and the country’s behavior toward other neighbors is consistent with that.

It would be an exceptional growing nation whose power does not go to its head, and China is not that nation. China’s leadership appears to be painting itself into a corner, seeking out military confrontations upon which it will then have to deliver victory. Much like the U.S. at its most jingoistic (e.g., “We will bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age”), China appears to be looking for an excuse to crush someone.

As they say, if you go looking for trouble, you will probably find it. Someone is going to give China a chance to use its fist. That someone probably won’t be the U.S. We are too interwoven with China, economically and otherwise. In fact, we are too frightened and weak. Our weakness is not military. We could beat China, on almost any level, but we won’t. We have too much to lose. Our engagement with China will continue to be like a high school wrestling match, with rules born of Cold War I, in which we grapple for advantage but refrain from doing anything painful or outrageous enough to provoke a real brawl.

The people most motivated to take up arms against China will be the small players who come in for the most extreme abuse. That’s how it played out during Cold War I. In physical terms, we fought the Soviets, not on the rigid frontlines of the Iron Curtain, with many thousands of soldiers and tanks facing off, but by proxy, in multiple conflicts scattered across Asia, Africa, and South America. The war was ours; many of the deaths belonged to others.

In our confrontation with China, we may yet have our Cuban missile crisis redux – in Taiwan, perhaps – and this time it may be us who blinks. Meanwhile, though, the real hatred is going to be generated among those who experience deep personal loss due to Chinese physical abuse. Nobody would know what to make of a rich Korean suicide bomber in Beijing. But it will not be terribly surprising if some Tibetans or Uyghurs become advanced practitioners á la Al Qaeda.

The U.S., of course, cannot have any part of that. We cannot be seen to be aiding anti-Chinese terrorists, for fear that China would return the favor. From the underdog’s perspective, the United States may actually have to be part of the problem, giving every appearance of working with the Chinese to eliminate so-called terrorists — even if they are actually just ordinary people who rebel against oppression. Indeed, our drones, our surveillance, and our government’s infringements upon our own civil rights continue to yield important tools, insights, and precedents for China’s government.

“Terrorist” can be defined to include people whom we would consider good and well-intentioned. As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. When governments become capable of extraordinary abuses and are also able to construct mutually tolerable balances of threats against one another, everyone else may have to find their own ways to protect themselves.

Regardless of our own faceoff against China, at a certain point it may turn out that the people doing the most to maintain balance in Asia are Asians themselves, and it is possible that they will use terrorist methods to do so, in ways that may benefit the U.S. and people elsewhere in the world. Bullying has become a focus of attention on the interpersonal level, in the U.S. and elsewhere; perhaps we are approaching an era where, for once, it will draw potent and appropriate responses among tribes and nations as well.

Facing such a prospect, it is not entirely certain that a terrorist with a nuke is always and forever as bad as might first appear. It goes without saying that there remain many terrorist causes and behaviors – especially but not only the crazy ones – that virtually everyone will abhor. Hopefully our awareness of that fact will not make us blind to exceptional situations.


One Response to “The Positive Side of Terrorists with Nukes”

  1. 1 Tex Arty

    Interesting concept

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