- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

Delegates from a dozen nations are gathered this week in Morocco for the first-ever meeting of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. The conference is expected to focus heavily on measures to control and detect nuclear materials. Among the nuclear powers that have not joined the initiative are India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Unfortunately, the preventive measures and new layers of security under discussion in Rabat are at best half-measures. One of the great ironies of the post-Cold War era is that both policy-makers and the public feel more vulnerable today, even though America’s population was at far greater risk of nuclear annihilation during that 50-year long conflict. The reason is the lack of a deterrent strategy. A robust deterrent policy coupled with preventive containment measures is the key to keeping nuclear terrorism from ever happening.

What would a credible deterrent to nuclear terrorism look like? For models, we should turn to the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union gave up attempts to prevent nuclear attacks from succeeding when they signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Instead, both sides concentrated on deterring nuclear attack by developing arsenals capable of annihilating one another’s population. The consequences of war were understood to be mutual assured destruction. The Soviet population was held hostage to America’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and vice versa. The result was stability, and, retrospectively at least, relative peace of mind.

John Nash, protagonist of the hit movie “A Brilliant Mind,” conceived the origins of game theory that lead to nuclear deterrence in a series of papers written in 1948 when he was still a Princeton University graduate student. In 1994, Mr. Nash won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work. When Thomas Schelling, a Harvard University professor, originated the MAD theory of nuclear deterrence in the 1950s in his landmark book, “The Strategy of Conflict,” he applied Mr. Nash’s insights.

Mr. Schelling won the 2005 Nobel Prize for making his work particularly easy for policy-makers to grasp, thereby fostering the Cold War equilibrium of nuclear standoff. According to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, a determining factor in Mr. Schelling’s Nobel award was his insight that the “capability to retaliate was more useful than the ability to resist a nuclear attack.”

That same logic could be adapted today to nuclear terrorism. Instead of focusing on preventive efforts to resist nuclear terrorist attack, we should focus on the kind of retaliation — what game theorists call “optimal threats” — that would constitute deterrence for ideologically or religiously sanctioned terrorism.

Since the North Korean nuclear test, some have called for explicit threats to retaliate against Pyongyang for any attack using a North Korean device. This is a good beginning, but not enough.

We urgently need a refinement of theories of deterrence as they apply to Islamic terrorist groups. Defense of the umma is a rallying cry of jihadists; would retaliatory obliteration of the umma in the event of nuclear terrorism create deterrence? Before one objects to the morality of holding civilians hostage to nuclear retaliation, recall that this was the Cold War status quo for half a billion Americans, Soviets and Europeans.

Perhaps there is no need to threaten nuclear retaliation against hundreds of millions of Muslims in the event of Islamic nuclear terrorism. A limited threat to retaliate against Muslim holy sites might be a sufficient deterrent. The point is that exploration, definition and enunciation of a credible deterrent is necessary. There is an urgent need to refine the conceptual basis of deterrence as it applies to nuclear terrorism. The Defense Department sponsored much of the groundbreaking research in game theory during the Cold War. This time around, we should turn again to our best and brightest academic minds and our government should underwrite the research.

Some will object that game theory depended on rational actors, and terrorists and rogue states are neither. This is a misunderstanding of both game theory and terrorism. The use of loaded jargon like “radical” and “fanatic” to describe terrorists serves mainly to muddle our own thinking. Terrorism may be repugnant, but it is also rational, and in any event game theory can encompass non-rational actors.

Others may object that a sweeping deterrent strategy based on massive retaliation will alienate Muslim allies. The fact is that Muslim populations are already largely alienated from the United States, so little is to be lost by elucidating a deterrent threat. With their very existence under threat, Muslim elites, including longstanding allies like the Saudis, will work harder than ever to eradicate terrorists. If it is a question of survival for millions of New Yorkers or Washingtonians living under the threat of nuclear terrorism, why shouldn’t it also be a question of survival for the political elites and populations of Riyadh and Tehran and Islamabad?

For the record, I am not among those who believe the threat of nuclear terrorism is great. In fact, I think the danger is greatly exaggerated and that its intellectual underpinnings are flimsy. But the consequences of being wrong about this are very high.

That is why we need to make the world understand that the survival of civilization depends on the deterrence of nuclear terrorism — not because nuclear terrorists can destroy civilization, but because we will most assuredly do so if they strike even one American city. Call it the MADS doctrine.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security.

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