Dienstag, November 01, 2005

What Economists Don't Know...

I ran across this (hat tip: Marginal Revolution) today and it reminded me of a conversation I had with the Head of IT at work.

He's not an economist, but works in a building filled with economists and financial people, and is always asking questions to see if there is something we, collectively, don't know.

He asks the questions because he rarely finds a topic that we don't know something about.

But this is a glaring example that even a nobel prize winner in economics doesn't know everything.

Permissive Action Links or PAL don't work the way that Schelling thinks they do. They are not some magic failsafe device that allows turning off all US nuclear weapons via radio, which is what he clearly states here:

U.S. weapons, for example, have "permissive action links"— a radio signal code that arms weapons but that will also automatically disarm them it if launched at an unauthorized target.

Sorry, that's not how it works. That'd be much too dangerous: imagine if an enemy were to gain access to that code, allowing them to disarm US nuclear weapons at will. Bad, bad idea. Really bad idea. There's no way you can't be sure that the code hasn't been compromised, and Basic Cryptography 101 tells you that if you can't be certain that your code isn't compromised, then that code is worthless.

PALs take the form of an interlock that doesn't allow the weapon to be used unless the proper code is input: make one mistake, and you'll need to take it back to the manufacturer for it to be replaced. You can read more here.

Schelling's basic idea is correct: if a rogue nation is making nukes, we should hope that they make them so that if a mob takes over one, they can't detonate without some sort of safeguards. And these kinds of safeguards are what make a stolen nuke from the US or the former SovUnion more or less useless as a nuclear weapon: you have to rebuild them in order to use them, and that is, mildly, a non-trivial task.

But once the weapon is armed, i.e. once the weapon's PAL has been correctly activated, you cannot disarm it. You can't disarm them with a radio code signal: you can tell bombers carrying them to return to base, but that doesn't disarm the weapons. If a missile is fired, then it will, ceteris paribus, be detonated; you can't disarm missiles with a magic code. The same is true for cruise missiles, sea-based missiles and any weapon where a human is no longer in the loop.

Which is why the US continues to have bombers and why bombers would be, in push comes to shove, probably the weapon of choice if you want to maintain positive control over the usage of nuclear weapons until very briefly before detonation.

Which makes Iran's development of missiles that much more disturbing: they apparently aren't concerned about maintaining control, but want to use them.

Or that they really don't understand the world that they appear to want to enter.

Which makes making sure that they don't get them that much more important.

And if anything, we should be sure that India and Pakistan use PALs.

And there is a reason for countries like Iran not to have nuclear weapons: they are irresponsible. For them, nukes are the key to being able to attack Israel with impunity: the Israeli deterrence, even though officially non-existent, does work. Remove that and all bets are off.

And given Iranian rhetoric, don't think they wouldn't be used. For them, it's the whole point of developing them: to destroy Israel first and to prevent the US from retaliating second.

And with nuclear weapons comes great responsibility. That's why none have been used since WW2. That's why the cold war never turned hot. Once you have nuclear weapons, you become a rational player, if and only if you are responsible enough to understand that they can't be used. But give them to a madman, or a religious fanatic desperate for the tool for destruction of a real or imagined enemy, i.e. someone who does not play according to the rules of the game, and all bets are off.


Jay Denari hat gesagt…

Hi, John,

Basically, I agree with you -- if nukes have to exist, we need many layers of safeguards on them, both technological and political. That said, however, what happens when a country that already HAS them at some point BECOMES irresponsible? Many countries today feel that way about the US, and we periodically feel that way about Russia. Or, worse, becomes desperate due to a collapsing economy, food &/or fuel shortage, or other major internal crisis? History is laden with states that lashed out against their neighbors when their internal situation became a mess, often because a radical regime took over the country.

I think Iran's interest in nuclear wpns (if they indeed are seeking them) is more out of fear of US being next door on both sides than out of any intent to initiate war with Israel. Their rhetoric is just that -- rhetoric; the same crap they've been saying occasionally for 25 years. Israeli politicians spout similar hostile rhetoric about various Muslim states periodically, too. Both sides know that actually GOING to war, especially with nukes, would destroy both countries.

From Iran's POV, they know if they started anything both Israel AND the US would pummel them; they'd have no way to make enough nukes to get in a crippling first strike. Teheran may be radical but they're not insane.

John F. Opie hat gesagt…

Hi Jay -

Here I can't agree with you: we're talking about differing degress of irresponsibility. Whatever you might think of Bush, I have yet to see anyone think that he's about to nuke someone: on the other hand, Iran seems to want to nuke Israel (remove it from the map) and just lacks the capabilities. But the motive is there.

And I've NEVER seen or heard an Israeli politician call for the eradication of a neighboring country: I think you are trying to discount the fact that such mass-murder rhetoric comes from only one side.

And no one engages in such rhetoric without meaning what is behind it: rabid anti-semitism.

And I'd agree that Teheran isn't insane: however, they operate under different rules. What if they used the threat of nukes to prevent US and European resupply during a Iran/Syrian attack? Add to that a coup in Egypt - a Muslim Brotherhood-led government there would join in an attack on Israel in a second - and you've got the makings of a monumentally bad scenario: of Israel, once again, alone against significant conventional numbers, surviving, once again, through better weapons and training. But if you were to remove the logistics that allows Israel to fight longer-term wars - resupply - then you've changed the equation massively. And that is what Iran et al wants.

And you don't have to have a first-strike capability to use nuclear weapons politically. Try this Gedankenexperiment: at the start of hostilities, lob a medium-range missile to detonate at, say, 100 km altitude over the Mediterranean, whilst delivering the message that Europe MUST stay out of the little disagreement between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Given the state of European politics, and the damage done by EMP to the civilian infrastructure, then you'd see no resupply of Israel during a conflict.

Removing Israel's ability to rely on external resupply would change the conventional dynamics of the situation massively. And not in the direction that can result in peace in the region.

Teheran, to repeat my point, isn't insane: they're just working on a different calculus than the rest of us. Which makes understanding them that much more difficult, and their actions in regards to acquiring nuclear weapons (and if you think they aren't serious, then you're deluding yourself) in defiance of their own obligations so much more sinister.


Jay Denari hat gesagt…


Actually, former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter HAS said he fears Bush would initiate nuclear attack on Iran if he could, and Bush's new nuclear policy claims the right to do so to "prevent" an attack using WMDs of any kind.

Now I'm not sure Bush WOULD (even I don't think he's that desperate) any more than Iran or North Korea would, but what matters is what others BELIEVE he's capable of. And you didn't really address my point, which was what happens when a country that already HAS them at some point BECOMES irresponsible?

Had nukes existed before Hitler, I'm quite certain Germany would've had them (they were the scientific powerhouse of the time)... and Hitler would probably have used them on Russia, the UK, and us if he could have, especially after the war started going against him. Of course, if he'd had them and we hadn't, WW2 would've been a very short war because the US would've stayed home.

Back to the present: Israel ALREADY has nukes; if they were put in a position of being unable to get supplies from Europe, they might see no option but to nuke Muslim capitals. Iran has no foreseeable capacity to threaten the US, but they know quite well we could obliterate them or just plaster them with EMP without physically touching them.

The only Muslim country capable of a nuclear response is Pakistan, and their missiles can't reach Israel. But Israel could gravely injure several countries at once.

The "rabid antisemitism" argument means very little in this context because BOTH Jews and Arabs ARE Semites. Iranians are not. Islamists hate Israel not specifically because it's Jewish -- they'd hate a Christian occupier of that area just as much (as several Crusades proved) because Jerusalem is holy to them as well -- but because it's NOT radical Muslim.

John F. Opie hat gesagt…

Hi Jay -

Sorry can't write more, but I'm in the middle of a conference.

First: Scott Ritter? You're referencing Scott Ridder? The man has no credibility whatsoever.

Second: I don't have an answer to the case of the country going from responsible to irresponsible. No one does, since it hasn't happened. Doesn't mean that it's not a concern and a problem.

Third: now you're being cute. Anti-semitism is clearly only meant as anti-jewish and you're begging the question when you state that Arabs are semites as well. Nice try, doesn't hold water worth a damn. And you're being especially disingenous in you really don't think a massive part of the problem is the Jewishness of Israel: it is the core of the problem, since it allows anti-semitism to be used as part of the political process. The very core of the nature of Israel is instrumentalized this was against Israel, since it is the one aspect of the state that it cannot compromise on.

Fourth: you don't have to be able to attack the US continent in order to attack the US: you can attack US interests, and nuking Tel Aviv would definitely be against US interests.

And yes, one of my nightmare scenarios is the isolation of Israel in the manner I've mentioned and the use of nuclear weapons to stop a war of genocide against Israel. That's one of the reasons that it's critical that the situation never comes up: if Teheran is involved in a war with Israel and uses its nascent nuclear ability to isolate Israel and push it into a position where it has no alternatives, then nuclear war becomes more likely and not less.

And that can't be a sensible political development.

I won't be able to reply until Friday due to work.


Jay Denari hat gesagt…


I agree entirely with your "nightmare scenario;" that's one major reason we need to be using our influence to bring Israel and the Muslim states to the table to seriously negotiate. It's also one reason why we can't afford to isolate Iran diplomatically or economically; trading ideas and real things with people helps maintain contacts that can be used to short-circuit crises.

This month's Foreign Policy makes this point specifically regarding civilian nuclear technology, noting that the major powers aren't fulfilling their promise under the NPT to assist non-nuke nations with such tech. (That's why we get backroom deals such as those alleged with Iran.) If the process were more open, it would have more public scrutiny and therefore be better controlled. Yes, wackjobs seeking weapons would have more data to work with, but if they want it bad enough, they'll find it under the strictest of secrecy anyway, so that's a moot point. What counts is the fact that more public participation and knowledge dissemination helps ensure that knowledge isn't misused.

As FP notes, all of the NPT violators to date except North Korea started their weapons programs under elected govts, and several countries had secret nuke programs without intent to create wpns.

They wrote: Building a small nuclear arsenal to face a much larger one does little more than invite a preventive attack. It is only once a state develops a secure second-strike capability—the ability to absorb the enemy’s first blow and then respond in kind—that it can begin to feel safe.

Iran has no reasonable ability to do that, so they'd in effect be unable to isolate Israel.

You wrote: The very core of the nature of Israel is instrumentalized this was against Israel, since it is the one aspect of the state that it cannot compromise on.

Oddly worded, but I think I understand you -- Israelis are unwilling to compromise their Jewishness. To a point, I agree, although there ARE non-religious people who ID themselves as Jewish ethnically.

The core issue and fuel for the whole antisemitism argument is that key political factions within Israel AND elsewhere are unwilling to separate Israel as a modern democratic nation-state (which can be open to Muslim and other participants) from Israel as an Iron Age tribal religious concept (which cannot). We see the same thing with the Christian Right in the US. Whenever religion and politics become intertwined, they create major problems for everybody.

Nobody reasonable expects JEWS as people to throw out their faith, but it IS reasonable to expect ISRAEL as a country to be more compromising and try to work with its neighbors. This issue wouldn't be as overt if there were several Jewish countries, b/c then the world would be more able to distinguish national politics from religious attitudes.

We CAN do that with Islam, b/c there are many Muslim states with very different ethnic backgrounds and political attitudes. Most people won't see that from the mainstream media (esp. on the conservative side), because they all but ignore such Muslim-majority places as Turkey (a secular democracy which once housed many US nuclear weapons & may still do so) and Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim state and also a very multiethnic democracy with several religious minorities), or even India (where Muslims are a noticable minority but very invested in the democratic process). The media also tend to ignore the fact that Islam does NOT equal Arab (Turks, Iranians, and Indonesians aren't Arabs, and some Arabs aren't Muslim) and that Israeli does NOT necessarily equal Jew (there are Christian and Muslim Israelis and many Jews that are not Israelis).

As a country, we need to divorce our policy toward Iran from our policy toward Israel as much as possible, and begin to treat them as we would treat regional powers anywhere else in the world that have historical animosity between them. That's what we do with India & Pakistan, Russia & China, China & Vietnam, Korea & Japan, Turkey & Greece, etc.