By William Pfaff
Of all of the sources of strategic delusion and political illusion today, nuclear weapons undoubtedly make the most prodigious contribution to hypocrisy and useless expense. This certainly is true for Britain, which is set to make major decisions on military expenditure this week. It is expected to avoid a decision on its largest new military expenditure by postponing the replacement of its Trident nuclear deterrent program until after the next general election.
This, if so, is very sensible. Trident’s sole value to Britain is symbolic, theoretically substantiating its rank as a nuclear member of the U.N. Security Council, with a veto. The Trident missiles are, as they have been for many years, under American Navy control. They have been superfluous to an American nuclear attack on some rival, as during the Cold War. Their value to Britain is political.
In this respect they bear no comparison to the French nuclear deterrent, which is entirely of French manufacture and under complete French control. It could be used against anyone the French wished to attack—even the U.S., for example—and, being a submarine system, it provides a deterrent second-strike capacity. It is not subject to destruction by an enemy first strike, but could retaliate afterward—at a dozen enemy cities—although God only knows what would be left of either the enemy or France after this was over. Better not try it.
How Britain spends its military money is of urgent American interest for entirely non-nuclear reasons. High ground-force numbers mean reduced expenditure on the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, in the current international climate of impoverishment and governmental austerity. The Pentagon is putting on London all the considerable pressure it commands to keep the numbers up on British ground forces, since these remain the only foreign forces likely (more likely than any other, certainly) to go on being placed at American disposal in what the Obama administration seems to have endorsed as “the Long War”—the “fight we’re in for the rest of our lives, and probably our kids’ lives,” according to a recent pronouncement by Gen. David Petraeus, who currently is in charge of running this war for the Pentagon-cornered President Obama. (To say “no” to the generals would destroy—or, a subversive thought, possibly make the Obama presidency.) Washington is anxious for London to continue contributing troops (which is not totally assured, since the British public is questioning the purpose and prospects of this Long War).
On the other end of the spectrum, Iran is where a nonexistent nuclear weapon dominates a region. American and Israeli officials, think-tank “experts” and newspaper strategists tell us Iran must be stopped from acquiring the capacity for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. This allegedly would put Israel, and the whole region, at the mercy of “the mullahs.”
The truth is that “the mullahs” are at the mercy of Israel, which possesses what is probably, outside present and recent “superpowers,” the most formidable nuclear arsenal in the world. (What is a nuclear “superpower”? It is a state possessing a credible nuclear second-strike force. Iran will never be a superpower by that criterion, but Israel has been one for a long time.)
Israel is concerned about an Iranian nuclear weapon because of the political and psychological effects upon both states’ standing in the Middle East. Possession of a nuclear weapon would not embolden Iran to attack Israel or anyone else, but it would deeply alter the regional political climate if Iran were a nuclear state, since this would give pause to anyone hostile toward Iran.
The U.S. would suffer the greatest blow to its “non-kinetic” power (as the Pentagon likes now to describe means of power that do not go “bang!”). It has invested so much of its non-kinetic power in declaring that Iran must not possess a nuclear weapon that it would suffer a major humiliation if that should occur, and probably suffer a great deal more than humiliation, since Iran also possesses a formidable non-nuclear deterrent against military attack by either the U.S. or Israel.
This is its retaliatory ability to do grave military damage to American forces in Iraq, naval forces in the Persian Gulf, and U.S. bases in Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere in the region. It could disrupt shipping in the Gulf, and block the Strait of Hormuz, interrupting a significant part of America’s and the West’s oil supply for a considerable period. This is why the Pentagon has been so anxious to restrain Israel from attacking Iran. The U.S. and its Arab allies and clients would pay the principal cost if it did so. This possibility also constitutes implied Israeli blackmail of the U.S.: “Do what we want, or we will provoke Iran to make a devastating attack on U.S. interests throughout the region.”
The American interest would have been better served, following the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, by turning a blind eye to Iran’s effort to acquire “peaceful nuclear energy,” and to Saddam Hussein’s quest to deter Iran. Taking them both on has meant double trouble for Washington, and, in the end, probably double failure. Plus, there’s Afghanistan.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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