Obama Challenge: Dealing With Irrational, Possibly Nuclear, Enemies

U.S. must rebuild and display its strength or its weaknesses will be exploited by enemies.

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Louis René Beres is a professor of international law at Purdue University. Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, USAF (Ret.) and Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely, USA (Ret.) are coauthors of Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror.

Last November, we elected a new president. Now, to back up credible U.S. deterrence against a still-growing number of adversaries, Barack Obama will need to rebuild a declining military infrastructure and doctrine. Otherwise, it is likely that this country's state and sub-state enemies may increasingly dismiss American retaliatory and other threats as empty bluster and false bravado.

In essence, President Obama must quickly fashion a broad, coherent, and updated strategic doctrine from which effective policy options can be suitably drawn and implemented. Among other major challenges, it will be necessary for the president to modernize our strategic nuclear arsenal, and to reinvigorate all of our associated nuclear capabilities. In hard economic times, especially, this will not be a popular task, but the national security alternatives for the United States are certain to be less popular, and vastly more expensive.

The United States has always drawn its operational military plans from a codified strategic doctrine. Our new president already faces unprecedented vulnerabilities, but the needed framework of principles and goals is now absent, or sorely out of date. Should Mr. Obama simply continue America's basic reliance on the Cold War-based logic of deterrence, even when the critical core assumption of rationality may sometimes now be invalid? This is not your father's international system. Any continued presidential commitment to classical threat-based dynamics of national security could be a big mistake. Today, various enemy states and also their terrorist surrogates could value particular religious or ideological preferences even more highly than their own lives and freedoms. Mr. Obama must understand: Future "martyrdom operations" will not be conducted by rational foes.

Our nuclear age began with theories of "massive retaliation" and "mutual assured destruction." This ultimately gave way to "flexible response" and "nuclear utilization theory." These strategic doctrines, first conceived solely with reference to the Soviet Union, created fierce debates over nuclear targeting options. Now, President Obama and his national security team will need to re-examine both "counter value" (counter-city) and "counter force" doctrines, but this time with measured regard for both states and their non-state proxies, and for plausible expectations of non-rational action. These sensitive examinations will be divisive, but the issues could concern nothing less than America's physical survival.

Although no longer a fashionable military concept at cocktail parties, a pre-emption option must still be made an integral part of any updated U.S. strategic doctrine. International law is not a suicide pact; there are times when a country need not "sit back" and wait to be attacked first by an aggressor. Inevitably, there will be new perils (some perhaps even existential) that may require an effective American resort to "anticipatory self-defense." In some entirely foreseeable circumstances, where enemy rationality cannot be assumed, and where the interception reliability of ballistic missile defense would be low or irrelevant, the only alternative to lawful forms of American pre-emption could be surrender and defeat.

President Obama has not inherited a simple world. Strategic doctrine is always a complex matter, and any improved U.S. plan going forward will have to be creative as well as comprehensive. If, for any reason, (1) Iran is permitted to "go nuclear," and/or (2) already nuclear Pakistan is taken over by jihadist elements, our refashioned doctrine will have to identify viable options for dealing with those countries. These options will require expanding enemy perceptions of truly persuasive American power, and of an authentic American willingness to use this power. They will also have to be backed by more adequate funding for advanced fighter aircraft (soon the United States may have the smallest air superiority force since World War I); upgraded naval strike forces; and appropriate resources for the Army's future mobility capabilities.