Belmont Club

The Memory of Fire

The Jerusalem Post says that Sheldon Adelson is looking for something lost. “During a panel at Yeshiva University on Tuesday evening, Sheldon Adelson, noted businessman and owner of the newspaper Israel Hayom, suggested that the US should use nuclear weapons on Iran to impose its demands from a position of strength.”

Adelson then imagined what might happen if an American official were to call up an Iranian official, say “watch this,” and subsequently drop a nuclear bomb in the middle of the Iranian desert.

“Then you say, ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all, and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, energy purposes’,” Adelson said.

“So a tremendous demonstration of American strength?” Boteach clarified. “So that they would get the message?”

“It’s the only thing they understand,” Adelson said.

“And do you see the current negotiations as a sign of weakness?” Boteach asked.

“Absolutely,” Adelson said.

Adelson’s proposal will be regarded by many as dangerous and insane. For all political intents and purposes the idea of a nuclear first strike against an enemy, however dangerous and however belligerent has been a political nonstarter since the end of World War 2.

Even during of the Cold War, with America facing literal annihilation at the hands of a massive Soviet arsenal — which in the early 1960s they might reasonably have pre-empted by a first strike — attacking first was politically unthinkable. The de facto American strategy for the entire Cold War period was mutual assured destruction: absorbing a Soviet first strike then killing them also.

There were two primary options. One option, “retaliation after ride-out,” required the second-strike nation to wait until after they were attacked to launch their missiles. Some portion of the nuclear arsenal would inevitably be destroyed in such an attack. This led to both superpowers investing heavily in survivable basing modes for their nuclear forces, including hardened underground missile silos for ICBMs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The other choice was “launch on warning” – launching nuclear missiles before the other side’s missiles could destroy them.

But the original foundation of deterrence, the psychological underpinning of terror upon which the entire edifice rested was the Original First Strike: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So great was its power of this warning that it stopped World War 2. It is a sad commentary on human nature to realize that the salutary effect Adelson proposes to wreak on Iran was first wreaked upon world consciousness by Paul Tibbets. To paraphrase Adelson “it’s the only thing we understood.”

And we grasped that lugubrious warning even though we did not openly admit it to ourselves.  Postwar leaders wisely choose to make lemonade out of the lemons by preserving the memory of the bomb as an alternative to demonstrating its horrors anew.

The psychological power of that original first strike was carried very carefully by successive generations of American leaders, in the manner of primitive men carrying embers from one campfire to light the next. The world was periodically reminded of existence of those awful glowing coals by choreographed commemorations of the Hiroshima, as well as by dramatizations of what unleashing such fire might mean in the present day.

The memory of atomic horror along with the certainty it would be unleashed under attack created what we called deterrence. The primary insight of nuclear peacekeeping was that as long as the fear of the bomb remained vivid and the willingness of the leaders to use it accepted, another First Strike of the sort of demonstration that Adelson suggested was unnecessary.

Because all we needed to do was remember the first First Strike and take heed. We could live with the threat of a second strike because the original first strike had made re-demonstrating its effect too horrible to be contemplated.  Hiroshima achieved the effect Adelson intended in a blasphemously sacramental way for all mankind. It is terrible to realize though  likely true that seventy years of world peace of peace was founded on the charred corpses of nearly 200,000 Japanese.

Till now.

Time has dimmed our memory of the terrors of the nuclear age. And presidents — especially the current one — have let the belief in America’s determination to use force to grow so weak that for all intents and purposes the embers have gone out.

Nor can they be rekindled. President Obama gave up the non-nuclear route to stopping the Iranian bomb when he retreated from Syria. And if won’t do that, how can he threaten the bomb? The fact is, he can’t threaten anything at all. Whatever the rights and wrongs of intervening in Syria might have been, the one undoubted result of the administration’s policy failure was that the Iranians have ceased to believe that Obama will do anything substantial to stop their march to nuclear status.

Obama has pressed the Democractically controlled Senate “to hold off on a package of tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program”. Obama is right in this. There is no point pursuing sanctions when the Iranians know full well that Obama will never pursue them to the sticking point.

The Ayatollahs in Teheran are now as certain as anyone can be that the President of the United States will never use strength against it no matter how openly it may arm. Obama has frittered away his own credibility and with it allowed the coals from Hiroshima to go out.

The credibility that Adelson craves has been lost forever and cannot be recovered again.  No Western government will authorize a first strike in order to re-establish what Harry Truman did in 1945. The phrase “we mean it” belongs either in the past or in the indefinite future. It no longer exists in the Present.

Therefore as a practical matter Iran has got the bomb. America can no longer ‘scare’ powers into abandoning nuclear programs.  That anyone should even conceive of the necessity of a First Strike indicates the failure of deterrence.  A working deterrence by definition has no need of such demonstrations as Adelson, unwisely in my view, now advocates.

But its gone and the political reality of no first strikes means that the only way it credibility can be re-established is when that taboo against nuclear war collapses under the threat of an actual attack. All that is left to the West and to Israel is to accept the remaining choices: retaliation after ride-out, or some version of launch under attack.

The embers have gone out. Time Magazine reports that Japan wants to ‘break free of its pacifist past’. We are not bound for a world without nuclear weapons. If anything the next stop is a world of universal armament. After the Iranians get nukes it will be the Saudis and on and on. Next year’s commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima should be especially poignant. Those who were killed by the Bomb will have finally died the Second Death; the first was in 1945; the second recently when they were finally, to all intents and purposes, forgotten.

It’s been a good 70 years, but we’ve finally swapped the Age of Truman for the Era of Obama.

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