What 24 Teaches Us About Nuclear Policy

So last night I was watching Monday’s episode of 24 on Hulu, and it provided a good opportunity to make a point about acquiring WMDs. Without getting too far into the details of the show and without revealing too many plot points that might imperil the enjoyment of future 24 watchers, the information you need to know is basically this: a maniacal executive of a private military effectively holds hostage the President’s decision making ability with the threat of launching these WMDs at American cities. Unwisely, the president complies. I know it’s easy to poke holes in the plot of 24, but I think this example is useful in illustrating a broader point about nuclear proliferation, and more specifically, the somewhat misplaced obsession on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Here goes:

The WMDs the private military obtained were literally smuggled onto American soil a matter of hours before the demand was made, which suggests the WMD capabilities of the organization are extremely limited. What’s more, though the private military resides on a medium-sized, heavily armed base, the base is itself overwhelmingly dwarfed by the broader capabilities of the American military. Given these constraints, the WMD capabilities of the private military operation can only be interepreted credibly as a deterrent threat. If the private military were to have launched the WMDs at American cities, verily, the casualities would have been tremendous. However, the American military would still be quite capable of responding with resounding force, destroying the entire base within a matter of minutes. This is not a scenario of mutually assured destruction; it’s simply one of suicide that no rational actor — profit seeking, or otherwise — would ever undertake, under any circumstances. The President should have called this bluff.

Similarly, many western commentators take for granted that a nuclear Iran would itself herald the eschaton. This is stupid. While there are a whole host of ramifications this would have on Middle Eastern balance of power, the notion that this would pose an existential threat is patently ridiculous. If Iran were to use a nuclear weapon to attack Israel, Iran would promptly cease to exist in any recognizable form. Of course, this is not a course a country acting in its own self-interest would pursue, which is why you frequently hear right wingers making the argument that Iran is an irrational and culturally suicidal death cult, informed by the logic of an individual suicide bomber writ large. However, there is really little in Iran’s foreign policy actions to believe that Iran is in fact a crazed and irrational actor. Though Iran’s blustery rhetoric might prove good fodder for advancing this view of a suicidal nation, their actions do not demonstrate any such desire. Thus, if Iran were to develop nuclear capabilities, it would certainly result in decreased western influence in the region, and indeed, this would be bad for American and its allies, but it would hardly rush in Armageddon.

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Posted in Culture, Policy. Tags: , , . 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “What 24 Teaches Us About Nuclear Policy”

  1. truevcu Says:

    Again, you fail to take into account the extent to which the right (esp some of the christian portions) have taken it upon themselves to bring about the Armageddon and thus fulfill “god’s” plan.

  2. Nuclear Musings « Yes, Let’s Talk About This Says:

    […] of my earlier post, Steve Walt provides some good background on the tendency to ascribe wildly irrational motivations […]


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