The Vital Thomas Schelling: Comments on Nukes, Taboos & Iran

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Acclaimed strategist and Nobel Laureate in Economics Thomas Schelling gave a command performance at this American Strategy Program meeting I had the privilege to chair with Arms Control Wonk publisher and New America Foundation Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Director Jeffrey Lewis.
Schelling made a number of profound, important statements in this discussion in his straightforward, deliberative, carefully crafted comments.
He worries that when he travels the world and runs into nuclear weapons-focused strategists, he sees the British, the French, the Chinese, the Russians but not North Koreans and Iranians. He sees Pakistanis, Indians, and others. He said it is important for strategists with responsibility for thinking about acquiring such weapons to be inculcated with the experiences — negative and positive — of other nuclear weapons-experienced thinkers and managers.
Schelling said that for at least fifteen years, the U.S. performed abysmally in nuclear materials stewardship and lockdown. He thinks that Iran probably will achieve the capability of building a nuclear warhead and that achieving and stopping at a “latent potential” would be a better option than full weapons acquisition. I have written about this before at TWN as the ‘Japan option’.
Schelling did live up to the “thinking through the thinkable” title that we gave this event. He even discussed various options that terrorists had with regard to using a nuclear weapon if they acquired one. Some of his thinking is a bit scary — blackmail essentially against countries — but Schelling points out that such blackmail threats are better than bombs going off.
Schelling also critiqued the recently issued Nuclear Posture Review for deflating what John Foster Dulles once referred to as the “taboo” of using nuclear weapons.
Fascinating lecture from one of the world’s master strategic thinkers that no matter your view on Iran, Israel, or nuclear weapons is well worth listening to.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

10 comments on “The Vital Thomas Schelling: Comments on Nukes, Taboos & Iran

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  2. erichwwk says:

    john, re “I’m still puzzled as to WHY THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HASN’T TRIED THE ONE STRATEGY THAT MIGHT ACTUALLY GET SOMEWHERE”
    Just as the Obama administration represents the views of the Rubinites, so its military and nuclear stance represents the views of Robert Gates and the military contractors: Full Spectrum Dominance. (Hence the NASA “Mars” mission-see link under my name).
    The PR work representing nuclear disarmament is actually a very clever way to ENSURE American military dominance. If you doubt this, you should take a trip to Los Alamos, and see for yourself how, in opposition to the perceived nature of START with START, NNSA is increasing weapons spending by an unprecedented 14% (24% at Los Alamos). “Disarmament” is now the clever PR way of disguising the US nuclear weapons buildup, in the same way WMD was the packaging under which the occupation of Iraq could be marketed. In lieu of traveling to NM, try today’s ABQ Jrnl oped by Greg Mello, director of the Las Alamos Study Group here:
    http://www.abqjournal.com/opinion/guest_columns/212229494187opinionguestcolumns04-21-10.htm

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  3. JohnH says:

    Walt is puzzled by all the hype about the Iranian threat, too: “we ought to keep this relatively minor “threat” in perspective, and not allow the usual threat-inflators to stampede us into another unnecessary war. My impression is that Admiral Mullen and SecDef Gates understand this. I hope I’m right. But I’m still puzzled as to WHY THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HASN’T TRIED THE ONE STRATEGY THAT MIGHT ACTUALLY GET SOMEWHERE: take the threat of force off the table, tell Tehran that we are willing to talk seriously about the issues that bother them (as well as the items that bother us)…”
    http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/04/20/more_hype_about_iran
    When faced with mysteries like this, I always ask “Qui bene?” Answer: Israel, militants seeking bogeymen to justify defense spending, and the unranium cartel.
    Why do so few “foreign policy experts” ask, “Qui bene” from one policy or another? It’s really very simple…

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  4. JohnH says:

    It’s wonderful to see sober thinking about Iran, particularly when it’s consistent with opinions I have posted here for years.
    What indeed would prompt Iran to use a nuke? Apart from Israeli hasbara trumpeting mad mullahs, I see no situation where Iran would use nukes, short of a desperate American or Israeli attempt at regime change involving massive Iranian casualties.
    However, possession of a capability to deter an American or Israeli attack by demonstrating “nuclear capability” might be of benefit to the regime. But the capability to destroy much of the Persian Gulf’s oil infrastructure, like they did to Saddam’s, would provide a significant deterrent capability as well. So I’m not sure what Iran gains by demonstrating nuclear capability.
    Ultimately you have to conclude that this whole “Iran nukes” narrative is largely a fabrication, a red herring designed to support some unnamed agenda, just like the narrative about Saddam’s WMDs. In part it’s driven by Israeli desires to divert attention from its brutal occupation and slow but steady program of ethnic cleansing. And in part it’s driven by US militants’ need to have a bogeyman to justify ever increasing military budgets. It could also be driven by the nuclear power cartel, which does not want any outside competition.

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  5. Dirk says:

    Thanks MarkL; I had just read the article in Juan Coles’ “Informed Comment” about a game theorist when Steve wrote an article about Schelling. Initially I was just trying to find out if it was the same guy, but it appears it was Schelling’s co-winner.
    Schelling’s Wikipedia entry was pretty scrubbed, although not Aumann’s, but Google provided plenty of other information. I only scratched the surface yesterday on Schelling; in addition:
    Schelling worked at the Rand institute and worked with Herman Khan and Albert Wohlstetter (Richard Perle

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  6. MarkL says:

    Wow,
    Very interesting comment, Dirk!
    I’m skeptical about game theory applications to politics. As I understand it, Von Neumann argued for a first strike against the Soviet Union on game theory grounds.
    I’m sure his position had nothing to do with the fact that Russia had invaded his home country, Hungary.
    At least Brzezinski was honest about his patriotic (towards Poland) motivations for urging Carter to arm Soviet opposition in Afghanistan.

    Reply

  7. Dirk says:

    Steve,
    The more I research this gentleman Thomas Schelling the more I become concerned. While game theory solutions to social problems are an interesting concept, it should be noted that the Nobel prize he won in 2005 was shared with a very far right wing Israeli Robert Aumann.
    Schelling was the “brains” behind the US’s gradually increasing bombing used during the Vietnam War.
    Schelling has been a major advocate for rejecting the Kyoto protocol, primarily because the US didn’t establish and set the rules.
    Robert J. Aumann is an esoteric Talmudist who has theorized about the use of collective punishment to oppress Palestinians.
    http://www.voltairenet.org/article130204.html
    According to Juan Cole’s Informed Comment:
    “…Ariel Sharon was convinced by some game theorist who knew nothing about Palestinian Arab society that if he could kill off 1/4 of the Hamas leadership, he could cause the organization to collapse…” This individual is almost certainly Aumann.
    http://www.juancole.com/2010/04/wright-assassinations-strengthen-religious-terrorist-groups.html
    In sum, I would say these theorists should be taken with a large grain of salt, especially given their atrocious track records.

    Reply

  8. The Pessimist says:

    America is a military-centric plutocracy and thus exposes itself to the vulnerability that will lead to its downfall: the cost of maintaining its military.
    Selected economic off shoring will starve its citizens of jobs and facilitate an internal revolution which now is in its infancy.
    By developing nuclear weapons, the American Military regime only accelerates tightening the noose around its own neck.
    Yes, America produces goods, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see the Chinese price of credit rise to 10% per dollar. No nation, least of all America, has cash reserves with which it can support itself for very long while others have unlimited credit.
    How about that?

    Reply

  9. Jerry says:

    Iran is a military dictatorship and thus exposes itself to the vulnerability that will lead to its downfall: the cost of maintaining its military.
    Selected economic sanctions will starve its military and facilitate an internal revolution which now is in its infancy.
    By developing nuclear weapons, the Iranian Military regime only accelerates tightening the noose around its own neck.
    Yes, Iran produces oil, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see the world price of oil drop to $1 per barrel for one month. No nation, least of all Iran, has reserves with which it can support itself for very long while others have unlimited credit.

    Reply

  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Iran nuclear conference urges Israel to join NPT
    April 18, 2010.NASSER KARIMI
    From Associated Press
    TEHRAN, Iran (AP)

    Reply

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