TCS Daily

Madder Than MAD

By Lee Harris - March 19, 2003 12:00 AM

In my essay "Our World Historical Gamble," I argued that we are facing a geopolitical challenge that requires a whole new way of thinking, and that this is one in which we must be prepared to think the unthinkable.

But this, I would like to add, is not the first time that we have been forced to think the unthinkable-though our very success in coping with the challenge we faced a half century ago makes us forget just how grave a challenge we faced at the time.

This challenge was posed by the existence of virtually instantaneously deliverable nuclear warheads on the tips of Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and our response to this challenge came in the form of the strategy known as Mutual Assured Destruction, nicknamed MAD.

And it was nicknamed MAD with considerable poetic justice. For, when approached from the point of view of any previous epoch, the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction did in fact seem utterly irrational. If war is the deployment of violence to make an enemy fulfill our will, as Clausewitz argued, then what sense can there be in a deployment of violence that, by its very nature, destroys both our enemy and ourselves simultaneously?

But this was not the only "irrationality" introduced by the threat of a nuclear surprise attack. For in order to implement MAD as a plausible method of deterrence, it was necessary to transform the internal organization of the state that employed it as a deterrence. The fact that this informal transformation was officially minimized during the creation of the strategy of MAD should not disguise from us its extraordinarily radical nature, nor the extent to which it marked an enormous departure of all the previous ethical and political ideals of the United States-it was, once again, a step into unknown territory.

Prior to MAD, ours had always been a government of checks and balances, one designed to force an automatic slow-down on any too precipitate action on the part of any one branch of government-but, above all, one designed as a break on too much concentration of power in the hands of the executive. The President, it is true, was constituted as Commander-in-Chief, but this function was originally envisioned as requiring the deliberative approval of the Senate. But, with the advent of the threat of nuclear surprise attack, the U.S. faced a brutal and utterly unavoidable choice. Either it had to renounce any plausible deterrence against a surprise attack, or else it had to permit the President to exercise powers that were literally beyond human comprehension-the power, in short, not merely to launch an unilateral attack on a single nation, but the unilateral power to annihilate vast sections of the planet.

The Constitution did not grant such power, nor could the men who framed the Constitution possibly have envisioned such power. Indeed, the mere possibility of such power would, for these men, have almost certainly spelled the demise of the system that they had envisioned-for how could anyone hope to restrain or check a man to whom such ultimate and absolute power had been given?

But the advent of the world-historical threat of nuclear surprise attack left us no realistic option other than to entrust such power to the President of the United States; and to do so in the face of all our previous ethical and political ideals. For the alternative was stark-it was to risk the loss of all our other ideals and values, through nuclear blackmail at the hands of an utterly ruthless adversary.

For most Americans the choice was so obvious that it is difficult for them to see that it could have been otherwise. And perhaps one of the liabilities of being an American is that we as a people have historically made such soundly pragmatic choices that it is sometimes hard for us to comprehend that other societies have not always exercised the same degree of hard-nosed realism.

But this fact in itself should give us some comfort. For we as a people have shown our sense of the realistic by the incontrovertible fact that we have triumphed over whatever has been thrown at us by the world. There are those who may wish to attack our sincerity, or our ideals, or our manners, or our culture-or lack thereof; but no one in his right mind could dispute our success. And success does mean something-it means that the successful party has managed to cope with reality; and when the success has occurred over and over again-as it has in the case of the United States-it might even begin to look a bit like wisdom.

It is out of this sense of the realistic that is so characteristic of our people that a response to the present world-historical challenge will be forged, provided we retain the robust self-confidence in ourselves and trust in our leadership that has served us so well in the past. Like MAD, it might be a solution that begins by seeming insane, and ends by looking obvious. But that is the nature of any creative response to an unprecedented challenge-it will provide its own justification, but only after it has proven itself successful, and not before.

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