|NONZERO THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY By ROBERT WRIGHT|
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND
PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE
PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
[Published in Slate,
Sept. 15, 2001]
the Last War
So, why hasn't the United States mustered U.N. support this time around? Oh, yeah--we don't have an ambassador to the U.N. At least we didn't. Yesterday the Senate confirmed John D. Negroponte's appointment to the post. In light of Tuesday's attack, Democrats abandoned the doubts about him that had been delaying confirmation—in particular qualms about his see-no-evil tenure as ambassador to Honduras during the early 1980s, when human rights weren't widely respected there.
So, what can we now hope for from the U.N.? Something reasonably resounding, even if less resounding than last time around (which involved an old-fashioned case of interstate aggression, exactly what the U.N. is designed to deal with). The traditional obstacles to American action in the U.N. have been Russia and China, two of the five security council members with veto power. But each, for its own reasons, shares America's aversion to Islamic radicalism. True, China has made overtures to Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, but apparently it did so in the hope of getting the Taliban to help neutralize Osama Bin Laden, lest he further inspire rebellious Muslims in China's west. So China's ultimate goals align with America's. The permanent members of the United Nations security council are—at some level of abstraction, at least--united. Stay tuned.
Bad Form II: Which is worse—exploiting Tuesday's tragedy to argue against missile defense, or exploiting it to argue for missile defense? I don't know, but I've stuck with the former, while the Wall Street Journal editorial page is doing the latter. Yesterday it wrote: "A President without defenses against missiles would have to think twice before he deployed U.S. forces to the Gulf or to defend some ally. And it is precisely the U.S. ability to project force abroad that is likely to deter the Irans, Iraqs, North Koreas and other states that sponsor and protect Osama bin Laden and other terrorists."
I've replied to this "missiles for bluffing" argument so many times that a randomly generated URL stands a fair chance of turning up an example. (This or this will improve the odds even further.) So I won't engage the argument here. But I would like to make one further point about how last week's events weaken the pro-missile-defense argument.
Many of us have long noted that launching a nuclear attack with a return address—which missiles always have--is guaranteed suicide for a head of state, and heads of state reliably favor life over death. So they'll always prefer putting a nuke on a barge and floating it up the Hudson River--which is much easier than developing ballistic missiles anyway. Missile-defense boosters such as William Safire reply that we shouldn't impose Western standards of rationality on foreign leaders. (Translation: You never know what those crazy Arabs and Asians will do.) He imagines a scenario in which a rogue dictator, facing certain lethal retaliation, "shrugs it off as his way to Heaven."
The aftermath of Tuesday's attack doesn't help Safire's argument. As soon as the prospect of a retaliatory strike against Afghanistan was raised, its Taliban government--probably the most zealously religious government in the world—hastened to distance itself from the attack. In fact, it wasn't just radical Islamic heads of state who turned out not to be suicidal (which is all my argument requires, since launching a ballistic missile requires state acquiescence) but even the terrorist masterminds themselves. Osama Bin Laden, who was probably behind the attack, and whose religious zeal I've never heard anyone question, denied involvement! So the general principle looks stronger than ever: Though there are people who can be duped into committing suicide, these are not the kind of people who wind up in positions of power—and certainly not as heads of state.