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Extending Nuclear Umbrella Is a Bad Idea

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START treatyby Ivan Eland

The hawks are at it again. During the debate on ratification of the new START treaty, some implied that reducing the number of U.S. nuclear warheads and launchers would undermine America’s ability to extend its umbrella of nuclear protection over more countries in the Middle East. They said this was required to obviate the need for Iran’s neighbors to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, if the Iranians get one.

Of course, the hawks would like to bomb Iran to prevent that from happening; but after all, in the chess game of international affairs, the jingoists are always thinking many moves ahead—usually getting us into all sorts of quagmires abroad to combat murky threats of low probability. So no matter what happens with Iran’s alleged nuclear effort, U.S. intervention—and lots of it—will be needed.

The hawks’ ultimate planning for the day when Iran gets nuclear weapons may also be because they know that their military option won’t solve the problem. Given America’s poor luck in sizing up Saddam Hussein’s efforts (really non-efforts) in obtaining “weapons of mass destruction,” U.S. intelligence seems not to know where all of Iran’s nuclear sites are located. So bombing would likely just delay, but not end, Iran’s nuclear efforts. In fact, any attack may kick the Iranians into high gear to get a nuke as a deterrent to further U.S. military action (the U.S. invasion of Iraq seemed to spur Iranian nuclear efforts).

But what about extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Iran’s enemies—Israel and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt—in the event that Iran eventually gets the bomb? Bad idea.

The conventional wisdom during the Cold War (and even now) was that it was a good idea to extend the U.S. nuclear shield over the wealthy countries of Western Europe, so that they had no need to expand their nuclear weapons capacity (strange, since the U.S. helped Britain and France get nuclear weapons in the first place) vis-à-vis the Soviet Union/Russian threat.

Despite the conventional thinking, it seemed to make no sense, even during the height of the Cold War, to risk annihilation of U.S. cities to save European ones. Although a Western Europe overrun by Soviet tank armies would not have been a good thing, the incineration of America would have been much worse for U.S. security. Of course, the bet was that the Soviets would never call America’s bluff, and thus be deterred from attacking Western Europe by U.S. nuclear weapons.

Even though the Soviet Union has long collapsed, the U.S. now extends its nuclear umbrella over an expanded group of European nations, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and probably some other countries more secretly (maybe even Israel). Right now, sacrificing American cities to save the Taiwanese from a Chinese onslaught or the South Koreans from a North Korean invasion seems even less intelligent than protecting the much larger GDP of Western Europe during the Cold War.

And extending the U.S. nuclear shield to the much more unstable and violent region of the Middle East seems supremely foolhardy. The U.S. could more easily get dragged into an unplanned and unneeded future nuclear exchange there than in any other area of the world.

The best argument that can be made for U.S. interventionism abroad is that if the U.S. doesn’t extend its nuclear shield to these friendly nations, they will get nuclear weapons to deter new “rogue” nuclear powers, such as Iran and North Korea. Yet even this proliferation argument is found wanting. Since all of the nations currently under the American umbrella are friendly or allied countries, the U.S. should worry less about them getting nuclear weapons than the rogues. In addition, some academic scholars argue that the proliferation of nuclear weapons to more nations would make the world safer by cutting down on cross-border aggression. Lending credence to this line of thought: Since nuclear weapons were invented in 1945, the number of cross-border wars has plummeted.

In reality, the U.S. doesn’t want even friendly and allied countries to get such weapons, because they make these countries less easy to dominate and are a shield against any possible future American intervention. Remember, friends can become enemies—as the experience with Iran has shown. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger helped the shah of Iran with his nuclear program, and look how things ended up.

The United States is also concerned with nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea mainly because they would give these countries the same shield against U.S. military action. After all, a nuclear attack against the U.S. from either of these nations is extremely unlikely. The most the Iranians and North Koreans will ever have is a few warheads, compared with America’s globally dominant nuclear arsenal, containing thousands of warheads. The U.S. can easily deter an attack from these two nuclear pygmies.

Therefore, the United States should not only refrain from extending its nuclear deterrence over nations in the volatile Middle East, but also retract it from friends and allies. No adverse overseas development is worth deterring—during the Cold War or after it—if the price is incineration of the U.S. home territory.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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