12 April 2010

Newsweek is terrible and I hate it

Let's ask a serious question here: why are writers and editors of Newsweek so terrible?

Go over to that magazine and read this article called "Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb." In it, Newsweek writer Jonathan Tepperman as well as his editors (implicitly) argue that nuclear proliferation is a good thing. Yes, you read that right. It's long, so I'll just excerpt the high points.
The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there's never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them. Just stop for a second and think about that: it's hard to overstate how remarkable it is, especially given the singular viciousness of the 20th century.


Nuclear weapons change all that by making the costs of war obvious, inevitable, and unacceptable. Suddenly, when both sides have the ability to turn the other to ashes with the push of a button—and everybody knows it—the basic math shifts. Even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and thus not worth the effort.


Nuclear pessimists—and there are many—insist that even if this pattern has held in the past, it's crazy to rely on it in the future, for several reasons. The first is that today's nuclear wannabes are so completely unhinged, you'd be mad to trust them with a bomb. ... But are Kim and Ahmadinejad really scarier and crazier than were Stalin and Mao? It might look that way from Seoul or Tel Aviv, but history says otherwise.


Still, even if Iran or North Korea are deterrable, nuclear pessimists fear they'll give or sell their deadly toys to terrorists, who aren't—for it's hard to bomb a group with no return address. Yet look closely, and the risk of a WMD handoff starts to seem overblown. For one thing, assuming Iran is able to actually build a nuke, Desch explains that "it doesn't make sense that they'd then give something they regard as central to their survival to groups like Hizbullah, over which they have limited control. As for Al Qaeda, they don't even share common interests. Why would the mullahs give Osama bin Laden the crown jewels?" ... A much greater threat is that a nuclear North Korea or Pakistan could collapse and lose control of its weapons entirely. Yet here again history offers some comfort. China acquired its first nuke in 1964, just two years before it descended into the mad chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when virtually every Chinese institution was threatened—except for its nuclear infrastructure, which remained secure.
This terrible, terrible article rests on some impressively huge flaws. It seems to being trying to convey the impression that once nuclear weapons went up on the shelves, everyone was forced to ratchet back their belligerence in general and especially towards other nuclear powers - and so we should welcome more nuclear weapons, to continue to force people to restrain themselves. In other words, terrible terrible Newsweek is arguing that the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction is a good thing, because the terror of a nuclear response to mundane attack is so great.

This is dumb. Newsweek is dumb. Who was the author? Oh, yeah. Jonathan Tepperman is dumb.

Nuclear weapons have been used - as bargaining chips - frequently. The article mentions (and glosses over) the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was one of the biggest moments of American nuclear threatening. But more recently North Korea has used its weapons to try to get attention or blackmail the world for support (2006 and 2009). And these threats only work because they are convincing, and they are convincing because an astute student of history can draw a far more powerful conclusion than "no one is crazy enough to nuke." The real student of history can look at the chain of events and realize, "Goddamn, there have been all kinds of seriously crazy and misinformed people in charge."

Let's skip the lesser examples and go right to the top. Terrible terrible Newsweek did it, so we will too. Hitler. Who is willing to say that Hitler would not have used an atomic weapon if he had them? And who is willing to say that there will never be another figure of comparable insanity rise to dictatorship of a nuclear power? For that matter, we know very little about North Korea - who is willing to say that no petty lieutenant, seizing power amidst a troubled change after the death of Kim Jong Il, will not be stupid enough or crazy enough or ignorant enough to hit the button if he gets into position to do so? Is it really so hard to believe that this could happen? Is that why terrible terrible Newsweek thinks it's okay if highly insular and leader-worshipping countries keep a few apocalypses in the pantry?

But let's look again at their history argument, upon which they rely a lot.  It's true that no two nuclear powers have ever engaged in full-scale war.  But it's also true that no two countries with McDonald's have ever gone to war with each other and so-

Oh, wait.  Nine years after that ravening moron Thomas Friedman proposed his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which asserted that the hands of world-flattening globalization would prevent war, the dreaded nation of Russia and its neighbor Georgia went into all-out combat over local territory.  It looks almost as though making arbitrary rules is a goddamn stupid thing to do when it comes to war.  Hey, did you know that Iran has never gone to war with America in the past, despite the many ideological conflicts?  Clearly, Iran cannot and will not attack America.  Impossible!

But really, the best argument for nuclear de-escalation is the simplest and smartest one in the whole discussion: accidents happen. False alarms occur. World leaders get bad information. The responsible people in charge can be wiped out and leave subordinates running things. Carrying around a backpack full of nitroglycerin is certain to make me walk more carefully, and maybe with my increased care I won't trip for a long time. But I only need to trip once.

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