The Rise of Nuclear Alarmism

How we learned to start worrying and fear the bomb -- and why we don’t have to.

At the dawn of what came to be dubbed our "nuclear era," strategist Bernard Brodie, in a book dramatically titled The Absolute Weapon, laid out two facts about the new bomb: "It exists" and "its destructive power is fantastically great." Brodie certainly got his facts right. But his implication -- that the bomb would prove to be fantastically important -- has scarcely been borne out over the ensuing decades.

In fact, the bomb's impact on substantive historical developments has been minimal: Things would likely have turned out much the same if it had never been developed. The only real effect of nuclear weapons is humanity's unhealthy obsession with them, a preoccupation that has inspired some seriously bad policy decisions. With a declarative certainty he never would have used in discussing physics, Albert Einstein once proclaimed that nuclear weapons "have changed everything except our way of thinking." But instead it seems that the weapons actually changed little except our way of thinking -- as well as of declaiming, gesticulating, deploying military forces, and spending lots of money.

Nuclear weapons are, of course, routinely given credit for preventing or deterring a major war, especially during the Cold War. However, it is increasingly clear that the Soviet Union never had the slightest interest in engaging in any kind of conflict that would remotely resemble World War II, whether nuclear or not. Its agenda mainly stressed revolution, class rebellion, and civil war, conflict areas in which nuclear weapons are irrelevant.

Nor have possessors of the weapons ever really been able to find much military use for them in actual armed conflicts. They were of no help to the United States in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq; to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; to France in Algeria; to Britain in the Falklands; to Israel in Lebanon and Gaza; or to China in dealing with its once-impudent neighbor Vietnam.

In fact, a major reason so few technologically capable countries have actually sought to build the weapons, contrary to decades of hand-wringing prognostication, is that most have found them, on examination, to be a substantial and even ridiculous misdirection of funds, effort, and scientific talent.

But though they may have failed to alter substantive history, nuclear weapons have had a great impact on our collective subconscious. As historian Spencer Weart notes, "You say 'nuclear bomb' and everybody immediately thinks of the end of the world." In service of that perspective, Earth has been routinely depopulated by nuclear bombs on film and videotape, twice in 1959 alone.

Because of this anxiety, legions of strategists have spent entire careers agonizing over "nuclear metaphysics," as the late Robert H. Johnson labeled it in his brilliant but neglected book, Improbable Dangers. However, while the metaphysicians were calculating how many MIRVs could dance on the head of an ICBM, few bothered to consider that the threat of military aggression they were attempting to deter essentially didn't exist.

The result was a colossal and absurd waste of funds. During the Cold War alone, it has been calculated, the United States spent enough money on these useless weapons and their increasingly fancy delivery systems to have purchased somewhere between 55 and 100 percent of everything in the country except the land.

We have also endured decades of hysteria over the potential for nuclear proliferation, even though the proliferation that has actually taken place has been both modest and substantially inconsequential. When the quintessential rogue state, communist China, obtained them in 1964, CIA Director John McCone sternly proclaimed that nuclear war was "almost inevitable." But far from engaging in the "nuclear blackmail" expected at the time by almost everyone (except Johnson, then working at the State Department), China built its weapons quietly and has never made a nuclear threat.

Still, the proliferation fixation continues to flourish. For more than a decade, U.S. policy obsessed over the possibility that Saddam Hussein's pathetic and technologically dysfunctional regime in Iraq could in time obtain nuclear weapons (it took the more advanced Pakistan 28 years), which it might then suicidally lob, or threaten to lob, at somebody. To prevent this imagined and highly unlikely calamity, a war has been waged that has probably resulted in more deaths than were suffered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Today, alarm is focused on the even more pathetic regime in North Korea, which has now tested devices that if detonated in the middle of New York's Central Park would be unable to destroy buildings on its periphery. There is even more hysteria about Iran, which has repeatedly insisted that it has no intention of developing the weapons. If that regime changes its mind or is lying, it is likely to find that, except for stoking the national ego for a while, the bombs are substantially valueless, a very considerable waste of money and effort, and "absolute" primarily in their irrelevance.

As for the rest of the world, the nuclear age is clearly on the wane. Although it may not be entirely fair to characterize disarmament as an effort to cure a fever by destroying the thermometer, the analogy is instructive when it is reversed: When a fever subsides, the instrument designed to measure it loses its usefulness and is often soon misplaced. Thus far the former contestants in the Cold War have reduced their nuclear warheads by more than 50,000 to around 18,000. Other countries, like France, have also substantially cut their nuclear arsenals, while China and others have maintained them in far lower numbers than expected.

Total nuclear disarmament hardly seems to be in the offing -- nuclear metaphysicians still have their skill sets in order. But a continued decline seems likely, and experience suggests that formal disarmament agreements are scarcely necessary in all this -- though they may help the signatories obtain Nobel Peace Prizes. With the demise of fears of another major war, many of the fantastically impressive, if useless, arms that struck such deep anxiety into so many for so long are quietly being allowed to rust in peace.

Flickr user Michael Heilemann


Nightmare on J Street

Why can't Arab Americans work for peace, too?

At last, somebody found me out.

This week, former AIPAC and Israeli embassy official Lenny Ben-David published an article revealing that I had given a donation to the "pro-Israel and pro-peace" organization J Street. Because I am of Lebanese descent, this clearly indicates that my dollars must be intended to advance some pernicious anti-Israel agenda -- and that J Street must be the vehicle for those aims.

I would be only too happy to ignore Ben-David's article as a collection of cheap innuendo and loose associations, but the stakes are too high. With J Street's inaugural conference less than one week away, opponents are desperate that it fail. The attacks on the organization, its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, its staff, and their supporters have taken on an all too-familiar form -- eschewing substance to malign the motives and associations of those they disagree with. Ben-David and his supporters are now attacking J Street for accepting contributions from Americans of Arab descent. The donations in question are largely symbolic, many of them in amounts between $30-$100, but his point is loud and clear -- an organization that receives Arab-American support must, by definition, be suspect.

But why on earth should J Street be ashamed to have the support of Arab-Americans like me? And why should Arab-Americans worry that participating in the political life of their country and exercising their freedom of speech might -- simply because of their ethnicity -- harm the candidates and causes they hold dear?

Ben-David's allegations offer two competing conclusions. Either J Street is not sufficiently pro-Israel (how else would it attract Arab-American support?) or there is a significant group of Arab Americans for whom being pro-Palestine and pro-Israel are not mutually exclusive. He assumes, and hopes everyone else will also assume, that the former is self-evident and the latter is impossible. He is wrong.

It is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, not out of some blanket support for either government, but out of a sincere belief that peace is in both people's best interests.  I hold that belief as a result of years of work within the Arab and Jewish American communities, working in partnerships not just with J Street but also with such groups as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, and Israel Policy Forum. I have traveled to the region and remain humbled and inspired by the courage and tenacity of those Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to submit to the cynicism or pessimism this conflict so often demands.

The reason J Street causes such fury among certain detractors often has nothing to do with its policy positions. These people are angry because the political climate has shifted in a way that they no longer understand or control. The generation that elected President Obama is not interested in being divided based on religion or ethnic heritage. We are not interested in a zero-sum game. We believe our elected officials must play a leadership role in brokering a two-state solution to this conflict, and that Arab and Jewish Americans must work together to support them. How can anyone profess to believe in a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians will live side by side, if they view with suspicion Arab and Jewish Americans working together to get there?

As a staff member at the Arab American Institute (AAI), it was my job to engage Arab Americans in civic life, including giving time and money to the candidates and causes we believe in. AAI's founder, James Zogby, has dedicated his career to combating those who would seek to exclude us because of our ethnic heritage. We have the right to engage in American political life because we are Americans. That we do so is to our credit, and not a negative reflection on those we choose to support in our common quest for peace. At the United Nations in September, President Obama said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "absolutely critical" to American national interests. Many of us --Arab and Jewish Americans alike -- wholeheartedly agree.

Those Arab Americans who support J Street, like myself, do so because we are eager to work with an organization that views us as partners and does not seek to perpetuate the divisions and pathologies of the Middle East here in the United States. Contrary to Ben-David's assertions, those of us who work in coalition to support President Obama's efforts are not the ones with explaining to do.