Let's talk first of deterrence. Deterrence takes many forms: the various words for deterrence - Abschreckung (German), dissuasion (French) and устращение (Russian), as well as the Anglo-Saxon deterrence each have different meanings, even when the same thing is meant. The differences are subtle, but meaningful: while the English "deterrence" points to a weighing of alternatives and then a deliberate and conscious decision to not do something - a criminal is deterred if he decides not to rob someone because they may be armed, for instance - while the French "disuassion" points more to something along the line of dissuading someone, of the opposite of persuasion, which has fundamentally the same thing as the English.
The German "Abschreckung" isn't so simple: it's less a matter of intellectual analysis, but much more an emotional thing, of springing back from an action, and the word is based on the German for terror, with the "ab-" prefix adding to the effect.
The Russian устращение, ustrasenie, doesn't mean what the English and the French mean, let alone the German: the word means to cow or intimidate: back in the Soviet days (and according to the Soviet Military Encyclopedia) this word was always - with no exception - used in connection with NATO. It was first and foremost an ideological definition, and underscored what American nuclear weapons meant for the Soviets: they were there to intimidate them.
But back now to the topic at hand: the rebirth of deterrence.
Now, what is the whole point of deterrence?
Basically and most fundamentally, we have to go back to the immediate post-war period. The West had, largely, demobilized, while the Soviets, largely, had not. I'm simplifying, of course, but the countries of Western Europe, devastated by the war, had no will to remilitarize and create a large standing army. What to do, then?
Rely on nuclear weapons to dissuade, to deter, the Soviets.
But how did deterrence actually work?
Let's go back to the Soviets: they were, after all, those who were to be dissuaded, deterred. What would deter them?
Correlation of forces deterred them, dissuaded them: the calculus of Soviet military doctrine, of acquiring such superiority of force that their victory, whilst never guaranteed, would be inevitable. Great believers in inevitability, the Soviet military. If the correlation of forces were not favorable, the Soviet military informed the Politburo and decisions were made to address this. The Soviet military was tasked with ensuring that the Politburo could use the military to further its goals: to intimidate the bourgeois governments of the West in order to get them to stop resisting the inevitable development of history: the triumph, of course, of Soviet communism over capitalism.
So, what is the point of the links? What do they mean?
A group of retired military officers - actually, the elite of NATO - says quite bluntly that NATO must consider the first use of nuclear weapons, that NATO must retain a first-strike capability, nay a pre-emptive capability to destroy, utterly, the threat of attack by an enemy.
The reason behind this? Simply put, proliferation, or, more exactly, the threat of proliferation: the danger that with more and more countries - with less and less responsible leaders - will acquire the ability to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, leading to an increased likelihood that they will be used.
You see, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the threat of the use of nuclear weapons was largely removed from the realm of politics.
It is now returning with heavy, heavy footsteps. It's not so much the simple likelihood that nuclear weapons are apparently being developed: it's much more that those developing them are not doing so because they want to shift correlation of forces to place pressure on the West (or, more exactly, that is not the primary reason), but those who are actively developing them - let's drop the sham, that's Iran - are developing them because they want to use them.
And that is what is so intensely dangerous.
The pundits in the West who seem to care little of whether Iran develops nuclear technology to the point where it can generate enough weapons-grade fissile materials to manufacture nuclear weapons, as long as they don't actually do it, are missing the point about nuclear weapons: they are a Rubicon that has not been crossed since 1945.
With the weakening of the UN and the apparent increasing rise of non-nation players - be these NGOs or movements like al-Qaeda - that do not play with the same rules as the classic nation-states of Westphalia, the problem becomes more acute.
So, what is the point of the threat of pre-emptive usage?
Simple: however organized the non-state actors may be, they still must operate within a framework of nations. Right now there is no way to prevent weak states - or sympathetic ones - from harboring non-national actors, and indeed these actors predicate their operations on being able to hide amongst the populations of such countries.
Political attempts to make this impossible have failed: both Afghanistan and Iraq underscore the fundamentally messy and protracted nature of asymmetric, but conventional, non-nuclear combat.
The generals here are pointing out that if the West is to succeed in fighting an ideologically motivated opponent, one committed to intimidating the secular governments of the West in order to get them to stop resisting the inevitable development of history, the triumph of Islam over the West, then it must revert to the balance of terror that sustained it through the Cold War.
But not, this time, by believing in rational, cool thinking that characterized Soviet military planning, but in recognizing that the opponent is, in our eyes, in the eyes of the enlightenment, fundamentally irrational. Hence the need to transform deterrence into what the Soviets always believed that it was: intimidation.
A pre-emptive philosophy, of fundamentally saying to the Muslim world, "Do not think of obtaining nuclear potentials to use against us, for we shall destroy you beforehand", can function only if it is used to intimidate, in the sense set out above, the nations involved into refusing to be a part of anyone's plans to actually use nuclear weapons.
And there are reasons that this needs to happen: if, for instance, a modest nuclear weapon of, say, Hiroshima yield, were to be detonated in Tel Aviv (after, say, being smuggled there by truck), it would gut Israel's society and kill between 1mn and 2mn people. The reprisals, say against Iran, would, given a 15-missile counter attack against the major Iranian cities, kill over 30mn.
What the real threat, though, is for the attack to be on Rome.
Normally, this would be deterred by guaranteed retaliation: but if al Qaeda executes the attack, who do you retaliate against? This is, of course, the deliberate policy of al Qaeda, of asymmetric warfare, of denying the West the ability to use the strengths of the West against al Qaeda,
But put nuclear pre-emption into the equation, believable - and that is the point the generals are making - pre-emption, and you get vastly different kinds of behavior.
But it's all a question of believability: call NATO's bluff on such, and you've exposed the paper tiger and won a massive propaganda victory. If NATO is going to go for such a philosophy, it has to be believable, which is what the generals are saying.
With the way things are going right now in NATO, with the abject German inability to grow a backbone and live up to its treaty commitments, believability is a major issue.
Put simply, deterrence will not work, has not worked, and believing that al Qaeda is a rational actor - as we understand that - and can actually be deterred is foolish at best and downright criminal at worst.
Hence: let NATO intimidate the countries we are talking about into deciding that they will no longer suffer al Qaeda to operate within their national borders. That is essential to destroying that group.
Escalatio, or the art and science of political intimidation by military threats, is a moot point; the enemy is engaged in operating at very low levels, of always making sure that they remain under the threshhold, operating as the Soviets did with "salami tactics" that constantly, slowly shift the barriers around. The West has lost its ability to play escalatio, not the least due to the nattering nabobs of the MSM, and if that is gone, there is only one game left to play, that of naked power politics.