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Friedman's sermon

One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don't always listen, of course, but once you've defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you've given yourself a license to preach. There's no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary's human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally's similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.  

This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today's column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman's points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy's political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.

For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran's motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran's "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.

In fact, Tehran's main goal in hosting the NAM isn't to enhance its domestic legitimacy -- I suspect most Iranians don't care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn't have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.

Second, Friedman misses what's really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he's just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt's posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt's ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt's freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt's regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren't wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.

For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he's there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he's not endorsing Iran's leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.

The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn't willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington's regional agenda, even if doing so wasn't really in Egypt's interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can't President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?

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Stephen M. Walt

Inflating the China threat

If you were focusing on Hurricane Isaac or the continued violence in Syria, you might have missed the latest round of threat inflation about China. Last week, the New York Times reported that China was "increasing its existing ability to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States and to overwhelm missile defense systems."  The online journal Salon offered an even more breathless appraisal: the headline announced a "big story"--that "China's missiles could thwart U.S."--and the text offered the alarming forecast that "the United States may be falling behind China when it comes to weapon technology."

What is really going on here?  Not much.  China presently has a modest strategic nuclear force.  It is believed to have only about 240 nuclear warheads, and only a handful of its ballistic missiles can presently reach the United States.  By way of comparison, the United States has over 2000 operational nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs, SLBMs, and cruise missiles, all of them capable of reaching China.  And if that were not enough, the U.S. has nearly 3000 nuclear warheads in reserve.

Given its modest capabilities, China is understandably worried by U.S. missile defense efforts.  Why?  Chinese officials worry about the scenario where the United States uses its larger and much more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to launch a first strike, and then relies on ballistic missile defenses to deal with whatever small and ragged second-strike the Chinese managed to muster.  (Missile defenses can't handle large or sophisticated attacks, but in theory they might be able to deal with a small and poorly coordinated reply).

This discussion is all pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate and far-fetched scenarios.  In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: they are trying to preserve their own second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, to include the development of multiple-warhead missiles that would be able to overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build.  As the Wall Street Journal put it:

 

The [Chinese] goal is to ensure a secure second-strike capability that could survive in the worst of worst-case conflict scenarios, whereby an opponent would not be able to eliminate China's nuclear capability by launching a first strike and would therefore face potential retaliation. As the U.S. Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Review points out, "China is one of the countries most vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defenses and their strategic implications, and its leaders have expressed concern that such defenses might negate China's strategic deterrent."

 

Three further points should be kept in mind. First, hawks are likely to use developments such as these to portray China as a rising revisionist threat, but such claims do not follow logically from the evidence presented. To repeat: what China is doing is a sensible defensive move, motivated by the same concerns for deterrent stability that led the United States to create a "strategic triad" back in the 1950s.  

Second, if you wanted to cap or slow Chinese nuclear modernization, the smart way to do it would be to abandon the futile pursuit of strategic missile defenses and bring China into the same negotiating framework that capped and eventually reduced the U.S. and Russian arsenals. And remember: once nuclear-armed states have secure second-strike capabilities, the relative size of their respective arsenals is irrelevant. If neither side can prevent the other from retaliating and destroying its major population centers, it simply doesn't matter if one side has twice as many warheads before the war. Or ten times as many. Or a hundred times....

Third, this episode reminds us that trying to protect the country by building missile defenses is a fool's errand. It is always going to be cheaper for opponents to come up with ways to override a missile defense. Why? Because given how destructive nuclear weapons are, a missile defense system has to work almost perfectly in order to prevent massive damage. If you fired a hundred warheads and 95% were intercepted -- an astonishingly high level of performance -- that would still let five warheads through and that means losing five cities.  And if an opponent were convinced that your defenses would work perfectly -- a highly unlikely proposition -- there are plenty of other ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. Ballistic missile defense never made much sense either strategically or economically, except as a make-work program for the aerospace industry and an enduring component of right-wing nuclear theology.

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