From Strangeloved "MAD" to Bushwhacked "Pre-emption"


[I've been away a while, in spite of my attendance at the recent IAWM General Meeting of May 8th, which - unsurprisingly - went unreported hereabouts].


In contrast with the current Bush foreign-policy fundamentalist
doctrine of absolute preemption, the "imperial grand strategy" of US
global hegemony, the MAD logic of "mutually assured destruction"
elaborated at the height of the Cold War cannot but appear,  from our
retrospective view today, "relatively" rational.  Bernard Brodie,
writing in the 1970s, summarised  how this MAD logic effectively
worked: "It is a strange paradox of our time that one of the crucial
factors which make the nuclear dissuasion effectively function, and
function so well, is the underlying fear that, in a really serious
crisis, it can fail. In such circumstances, one does not play with
fate. If we were absolutely certain that the nuclear dissuasion is one
hundred per cent efficient in its role of protecting us against a
nuclear assault, then its dissuasive value against a conventional war
would have dropped to close to zero."

Though the MAD doctrine came perillously close to being dangerously
unravelled when seriously tested during the height of the Cuban
Missile Crisis in October 1962, the MAD nevertheless "worked" not
because it was perfect, but on account of its very imperfection. What
made the strategy seemingly efficient was the very fact that we could
never be certain that it would work perfectly, Unless it actually did.
It was this scenario that was explored in Dr Strangelove, with
hilarious effects: what if a situation spirals out of control for a
variety of easily imaginable reasons, from the "catch them with their
pants down"  aggressivity of a rogue general sending off his B-52s for
a "preemptive" strike against the sleepy, trouserless Soviets to
simple technological failures [the CRM machine failure] or mis/non
communications [the OPE code-breaking and the failure to inform about
the Doomsday device]? But it was precisely, and paradoxically,
because of this permanent catastrophic threat that both sides never
wanted to come even too close to the prospect of MAD, so they both
avoided even direct conventional war [though they didn't avoid more
limited proxy wars like Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, etc].

Indeed, the perfect MAD strategy (if the US nuked the Soviets, the
latter would automatically respond, and the world would thus be
destroyed) had a fatal flaw: what if the attacking side counts on the
fact that, even after its first strike, the opponent continues to act
as a rational agent? His choice is now: with his country mostly
destroyed, he can either strike back, thus causing total catastrophe,
the end of humanity, or NOT STRIKE BACK, thus enabling the survival of
humanity and thereby at least the possibility of a later revival of
his own country? A rational agent would always chose the second
option. This scenario was overlooked/superceeded in Dr Strangelove,
where we learned that the Soviets had actually perfected an automatic
"perfect" MAD strategy by developing a Doomsday device ("But vie
didn't you tell us!?"). Because if the strategy were perfect (if, in
Dr Strangelove, for instance, the Americans - and the rogue generals -
had been informed of the Doomsday device prior to its going "live"),
it would, on the contrary, reinforce the attitude "Let's fight a full
conventional war, since we both know that no side would ever possibly
risk the suicidal step towards a nuclear strike!" So the actual
logical scenario of MAD is not "If we follow the MAD strategy, the
nuclear catastrophe will not take place," but instead: "If we follow
the MAD strategy, the nuclear catastrophe will not take place, UNLESS
some unforeseen event occurs," as we witnessed occurring in Dr
Strangelove. This is why the US has never initiated a "conventional"
war with a nuclear power [or any country with WMDs), this is why it
won't attack a nuclear-armed North Korea, but did attack a disarmed
Afghanistan and a disarmed Iraq, and fought numerous proxy wars during
the Cold War.

Compared to the imperfect MAD strategy, the problem with "The National
Security Strategy" issued by the White House on September 20, 2002,
which explicitly sets forth the "Bush doctrine" of "preemption", is
that, with its implementation, still ongoing, the LOOP IS CLOSED:
there is no longer any room even for the "realistic" opening up of the
unforeseen future event which had sustained the viability of the MAD
doctrine. Instead, the "Bush doctrine" relies on the violent assertion
of the paranoiac logic of total control, of absolute hegemony over the
FUTURE threat of possible attack by some unspecified power and
preemptive strikes against it. The ineptness of such an approach for
today's universe in which knowledge circulates freely is patent. The
loop between the present and the future is thus closed: the prospect
of breath-taking, spectacular terrorist acts is repeatedly evoked in
order to justify incessant preemptive strikes NOW. The resulting
condition in which we live now, in the constructed "war on terror," is
therefore the one of the endlessly suspended "terrorist threat": the
catastrophe (the new terrorist attack) is taken for granted, taken as
a foregone conclusion, as inevitable, yet it is endlessly postponed.
Whatever will actually happen, even if it will be a much more horrible
attack than that of 9/11, will not yet be "that", that _final_
catastrophic attack.

But what is actually crucial to understand here is how the true
catastrophe is ALREADY  this life under the shadow of the permanently
broadcast threat of an always imminent catastrophe. As Zizek
maintains, "This is ideology at its purest. Today's "American,
awaken!" is a distant call of Hitler's "Deutschland, erwache!", which,
as Adorno wrote long ago, meant its exact opposite ... In short, far
from awakening us, September 11 served to put us to sleep again, to
continue our dream [of the US hegemonic ideology] after the nightmare
of the last [post-Vietnam trauma] decades."

Any wonder, then, that so many are nostalgic about the era of Dr
Strangelove?

 

 


 


Created By: Padraig L Henry