The cynical view of national sovereignty holds that it belongs only to those who can defend it. This was said recently at the Pentagon concerning American manned and unmanned attacks inside Pakistan, in violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Terrorism also ignores sovereignty. There is a reciprocal relationship between international terrorism and American and NATO international counterterrorism, or supposed pre-emption of terrorism, in that both ignore sovereignty — whose legal definition is a nation’s undivided and exclusive jurisdiction over its affairs, and absolute right to defend itself.

The closest to an absolute means for defense of sovereignty is the possession of nuclear weapons. This is why such countries as Iran and North Korea have nuclear programs meant — or so it is assumed — to provide them with nuclear weapons.

The motive for nuclear weapons proliferation is defense of national sovereignty. Proliferation does not itself imply aggressive intent: such weapons are literally useless in an aggressive role.

The only exception to this rule is regional, between nuclear and non-nuclear states. However, India and Pakistan have gone to great expense to re-create for themselves the same MAD (mutual assured destruction) relationship that prevailed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and China) during the Cold War.

Given that one will never allow the other to gain a nuclear advantage, India and Pakistan would have been better off to leave things as they were before. Pakistan may now think itself safer from India’s much larger army, but both countries are actually worse off, in mindless rivalry over the status of Kashmir, a matter of infinitesimal importance compared with a nuclear war.

A nuclear defense of national sovereignty is meaningful — if it is ever meaningful — only in extreme circumstances, and if the threat comes from another nuclear power would probably prove suicidal; hence unlikely to be employed. Nevertheless, possession of nuclear weapons makes the other side think twice.

The propaganda argument usually made about Iran is that nuclear weapons would allow that country to threaten the United States, Israel and Europe. The missile defense that the Bush administration has wanted to build in Poland and Czechoslovakia is not meant to defend anything. It was designed to have a political effect by dividing “old” Europeans from the “new” ones who support the American proposal. Above all, it is meant to intimidate Russia. It is not directed at Iran, for whom a nuclear missile attack on the West would be nonsensical, as Teheran and Washington both know.

The purpose of U.S. pressure on the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency to provide further justification for Security Council sanctions on Iran is to prevent that country from obtaining the only feasible deterrence it could present to a future American or Israeli intervention in that country.

Israel has pressed hard for a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, not because it fears nuclear aggression by Iran, which is inconceivable and would be suicidal folly. Israel’s concern is that if Iran acquires one or several nuclear weapons, it would deter conventional attack by its enemies, notably the United States.

The existence of a nuclear Iran, despite the strategic military insignificance of its nuclear force, would also deprive Israel of the political power it derives from being the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons obviously do not deter the United States’ repeated violations of its sovereignty with bombing and raids into the country, nor does it dissuade the American president-elect from promising to continue (or enlarge) those sovereignty violations if Pakistan fails to capture and deliver al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden to the United States. The weapons were not intended to do so. They relate exclusively to India.

However, there is another and much more practical penalty for American disregard of Pakistani sovereignty (even when it may be secretly authorized by the new government in Islamabad). This policy exacts a heavy political cost among the Pakistani population, and in the long run could turn Pakistan into another Afghanistan, even more dangerous to the United States than the war in Afghanistan is now.

The most recent American missile launched from Afghanistan into Pakistan struck a village some 30 miles inside the country, well beyond the tribal region where the Taliban are. U.S. officials make the usual claim that the victims were Taliban or foreign militants. Villagers and a local official made the usual response that the victims were civilians and included no militants.

A large Islamist political party announced that in retaliation it would block the major routes used by the U.S and NATO to supply their forces in Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports that one important supply route running from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan was reopened only last Monday after a week’s shutdown because of previous Taliban attacks, and now is again blocked for security reasons. Some 75 percent of supplies for Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. According to officials on the scene, the latest attacks on supply convoys are of unprecedented sophistication.

The maxim that sovereignty depends on the military ability to defend it can be reversed. The systematic military violation of sovereignty can eventually generate the defeat the policy is intended to prevent.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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