“Israelis will not wait for the world to step in,” nor, perhaps, even for “rock-solid certainty” of being attacked, he says. “It can’t afford to take that chance.”
But then what? Would a series of retaliations start a nuclear holocaust exterminating all humanity?
Israel begins Rosenbaum’s new book, “How the End Begins: the Road to a Nuclear World War III,” and runs like a thread through it, swelling to a 33-page chapter giving little cause for optimism. Rosenbaum, author of “Explaining Hitler,” offers an easy read that conveys a good deal of wisdom — although sometimes less in the manner of a wise man than of a wise guy. An opponent of nuclear weapons since childhood, Rosenbaum focuses around three themes: the possibility of accidental nuclear war, the morality of nuclear retaliation and Israel-Iran.
Decades ago, nuclear weapons were owned only by rational nations, and “mutually assured destruction” was an overwhelming restraint. But now, he says, we’re in a “chaotic state of multi-polar nuclear powers with less control and less restraint and a greater chance of touching off a regional nuclear war that could escalate to global scale.” The risks “are multiple, asymmetrical, not susceptible to the binary logic of deterrence.” Particularly when Iran says it doesn’t care if it is destroyed so long as it first destroys Israel.
The morality of retaliation — pretty much poisoning the planet — is difficult. On the surface, there might seem to be no point, but an adversary that believes retaliation would not occur is encouraged to strike. And without retaliation, the first-strike enemy could walk in and take over the tattered remains of its victim.
Rosenbaum refers over and over to a “hair trigger” alert for U.S. land-based missiles. He admits the real decision time is up to 15 minutes — not much, but not quite the image of two lieutenants in a missile silo, their fingers gripping inserted launch keys. He’s anxious about NATO and U.S. fighters intercepting and accompanying Russian strategic bombers flying down British and U.S. Atlantic coasts: “Dogfights with nuclear-capable bombers!” But such intercepts were old news four decades ago, as Soviet aircraft likely probed our response time and radar frequencies, and the “enemies” mostly just flew alongside each other, sometimes waving. The United States filmed and publicized such intercepts. In one famous image, a Soviet tail gunner showed off his Pepsi-Cola.
The accidental launch problem is real — a reason the White House and Kremlin installed a direct telephone link. But that leaves out “rogue states like North Korea or dangerous enigmas like Pakistan and Israel.” The book opens with a British newspaper’s claim that the world came close to nuclear war on Oct. 6, 2007, as Israeli aircraft flying to destroy Syria’s reactor likely were seen by Soviet satellites, possibly setting off warnings, even threats and counterthreats among nuclear powers.
Rosenbaum describes himself as “a secular, liberal, nonobservant, non-Zionist American-born Jew with no immediate family members murdered in the Holocaust.” Even so, he’s very sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma, saying memory of the Shoa makes Israel the most likely flash point of a nuclear war. He points out that people didn’t believe Hitler’s threats, and Arab exterminationist rhetoric “that bombards parents raising children in Israel are echoes of Hitler and cannot help but influence Israel’s nuclear decision makers.”
So what’s the prescription to prevent global nuclear war? Rosenbaum favors a formula of Admiral Arleigh Burke, who decades ago said nuclear-armed missiles on U.S. soil invite a devastating attack and argued instead for keeping enough for credible retaliation in hard-to-locate submarines.
President Obama’s goal of banishing all nuclear weapons is the ultimate answer, Rosenbaum says, but it’s too late for that. We have to rely on luck, he says, “and our luck is bound to run out.”
(Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.)