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Book World Live

George Perkovich
Vice President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; 3:00 PM

In Sunday's Book World, George Perkovich reviews "The Bomb," Gerard J. DeGroot's single-volume history of the bomb's early life in the original nuclear family: the United States, the Soviet Union, and their British, French and Chinese offspring:

"The most troubling part of the nuclear story is the way leaders rationalize their willingness to use doomsday weapons -- and to blur the just-war distinction between legitimate military targets and innocent civilians."
-- Destroyer of Worlds, (Book World, March 21)



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Readers Are Talking About...

Join Perkovich, a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "India's Nuclear Bomb," for a discussion of nuclear history and today's tensions with Iran and North Korea on Tuesday, March 22, at 3 p.m. ET.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Lyme, Conn.: What was the administration thinking when they deliberately lied about North Korea selling its nuclear technology? Did they think it was worth a few debate points versus ultimately being exposed for providing incorrect information? Hasn't this undermined our ability to convince the rest of the world of the trustworthiness of our word?

George Perkovich: I don't know what they were thinking, and they are very smart people. It is damaging to credibility, as many people around the world think the U.S. is giving Pakistan a pass, while coming down very hard on other countries whose "sins" are perhaps not as great as Pakistan's. The Administration's effort to obscure the Pakistan connection in the briefing it gave about North Korea's export of uranium hexaflouride is the latest example. Not a good move.

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Washington, D.C.: Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear facility built with the help of France. Now Russia is going to help with Iran's nuclear energy program. Will Russia's backing of Iran's program act as a deterrent to Israel or the U.S. wanting to destroy Iran's facilities?
Also, it seems clear to me from the India/Pakistan situation that countries near Israel would desire nuclear weapons in response to Israel being a nuclear power. This fact seems to be obfuscated in discussions about the spread of nuclear weapons.

George Perkovich: This question is a big and difficult one. Israel's possession of nuclear weapons is clearly a major POLITICAL problem complicating efforts to stop and reverse proliferation, especially in the Middle East. In that sense, the U.S. and Israel must work together better to create the political sense that a "fair" nuclear order is possible in the region. Israel has welcomed the goal of creating a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East, and that is a start, one which the U.S. should do more to pursue.
However, in terms of security, Israel does not really pose a threat to Iran or other countries that may use Israel's nuclear status as a pretext for their own nuclear ambitions. Think about it: Iran has no territory that Israel wants. Israel has not motive whatsoever to threaten Iran EXCEPT if Iran seeks to acquire weapons that could gravely threaten Israel. Israel's sense of threat in this case is accentuated by Iran's refusal to recognize Israel's existence. This would make an Iranian nuclear weapon, by definition, an existential threat to Israel. If Iran were to remove this possible threat, then what basis at all would Israel have to threaten Iran? I believe that smart Iranians know this, even if they do not say so publicly.

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Washington, D.C.: I've read parts of DeGroot's book and found a passage (which you didn't mention) that was riveting: In 1954, "The Conqueror," a film about Genghis Khan was filmed in Escalante Desert in Utah, 150 miles from Yucca Flat, scene of some very dirty nuclear tests. "Ninety-one of the 220 people who worked on the film . . . developed some form of cancer. Forty-six died prematurely. Cancer killed, among others, Dick Powell, John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead."
There must have been so many cases of people who lived downwind from the atmospheric tests with no clue of what was happening to them.
Has anyone ever successfully sued the U.S. government for harming them with this lethal dose of radiation?

George Perkovich: There are many fascinating elements in DeGroot's book that I did not have space to mention. You point to one which he treats very well throughout the book: the human and environmental consequences of manufacturing and testing nuclear weapons, not only in the U.S. but in Russia, China and the Algerian and South Pacific domains used by France. This is a really important part of the story that the classic histories -- Richard Rhodes, etc. -- did not address. And yes, victims have sued the U.S., and some have won, though I don't have details on the top of my head.

Another great theme in the book that I did not mention is DeGroot's expose of the sexual, for lack of better word, subtext of much of the arms race and of the scientists and generals' language and thought about nuclear war. There are lots of great quotes about castrating the other guys, or being emasculated. The subject is a Jungian or Freudian dream, I suppose, and DeGroot gives a nice sense of it.

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Winthrop, Mass.: I am confused. My dad worked on the Manhattan Project, and I have read numerous articles by others, and they all agree. If you have good research level of physics, the money, the raw materials, and add in a relatively small amount of technical knowledge that any nuclear power processes, you get out Nukes. Once it's been done, it's not an amazing feat anymore. Since Pakistan was giving away expert knowledge(far beyond what was available in WWII) on the bomb-making process, and countries like Iran almost certainly have dozens of Physic experts trained the same place as those working in U.S., and Chinese Nuclear Labs why wouldn't they already have several Nukes?

George Perkovich: Knowing how to build a nuclear weapon, and getting nearly there, are relatively easy, as you suggest. It turns out, though, that the "last 5 percent" of the engineering problem is extremely difficult. We are lucky, in other words, that it's a bit harder than we may fear to build a workable bomb. Also, it's very difficult actually to produce the fissile materials -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium. So the basic principles of a design are relatively easy, but the final product not so.

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Arlington, Va.: We say Iran can't have nukes because of what they'll do with them. Same with North Korea and Al Qaeda. Yet, they haven't employed nuclear weapons, while the U.S. has used them against Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Now with the U.S. war crimes under President Bush at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and throughout Iraq, what's to stop enemies of the U.S. from pointing to the U.S.'s actions as the problem, and to building their own nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent? Seems like the only constants are that the builders of these weapons make more money arming both sides, and that Gandhi wasn't so naive.

George Perkovich: There is a paradox, or many paradoxes in this business. Nuclear deterrence is a real effect...it works. The problem is that if it does not work 100 percent of the time for all time, the consequences are absolutely horrific. So it's a cosmic gamble. Another paradox is that the U.S. has such great military power that it now can try to capture the position it could not in the Cold War -- to escape from being deterred, while having so much military power you can deter any other state from attacking you. That position amounts to complete freedom of military maneuver, and it's what the U.S. seeks. One problem with it is that if others fear the way the U.S. would use these complete freedom to project power they have very strong incentives to try to find ways to put the U.S. back under some form of deterrence. Maybe it would be to acquire nuclear weapons, maybe to be able to conduct terrorist operations in U.S. cities, maybe some other way. But if you give people a choice between complete capitulation to U.S. diktat or else finding a way to constrain U.S. power, they're likely to try to constrain us.

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Height of Hypocrisy: How can the U.S. really be justified in denouncing states seeking nuclear technology, weapons, energy, programs, etc., when clearly we are actively developing new weapons and programs ourselves? Add to that the condescending rhetoric of the present administration and we really should not be surprised by nuclear proliferation.

George Perkovich: Right now, the single worst thing the U.S. can do to undermine its credibility on nonproliferation would be to go forward and research and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. Some things in life are complicated, but to the rest of the world the U.S. going to war in Iraq over WMD proliferation, and mobilizing severe pressure and possible war on Iran and North Korea to stop their nuclear programs while at the same time building a new type of nuclear weapon in America is simply wrong, hypocritical and unjust. The outrage over the prospect is significant.

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Fairfax, Va.: Given the current situation with North Korea, do you think the South Koreans may attempt to build their own nuclear weapons?

George Perkovich: The South Korean position is complicated. Not only are they concerned about North Korea, I think they are more concerned about Japan. That is, the South Korean temptation will be to match Japan. This means acquiring uranium enrichment or plutonium separation capability under the guise of peaceful nuclear work as permitted by the NPT. I'm not saying South Korea WILL do this, but I think the temptation is there and would be increased more by Japan than by concerns over North Korea.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think the U.S. is going to become the victim of a nuclear weapon exploded on our soil by terrorists?

George Perkovich: No, but I am almost the only person in this business who does not think so. I think that such an act would not serve the interests of most terrorist organizations that would be sophisticated enough to get and detonate a nuclear weapon. But this is highly debatable of course.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the current status of India's nuclear posture? Has much changed since you wrote your book?

George Perkovich: India, I believe, is continuing to produce materiel and components for nuclear weapons, refining delivery systems, and working out its command and control systems. It is doing this slowly and steadily. One of the most remarkable things is the ongoing discipline imposed by political leaders -- to keep the nuclear program from getting absorbed by the military. The role of nuclear weapons in Indian politics and discourse has remained quite modest. This reflects, perhaps, the realities of a parliamentary democracy of one billion people. There are greater priorities and politicians are acutely aware of them.

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Arlington, Va.: As horrifying and morally troublesome as the doctrines of mutual assured destruction and massive retaliation were and are, haven't they worked the way they were supposed to? There has never been a hostile nuclear exchange, and the industrial world has avoided another world war.

George Perkovich: There is definitely something to your argument. There have been close calls, some closer than we knew at the time, but, yes, in the U.S. Soviet context it worked.

The problem is that nuclear deterrence needs to work 100 percent of the time forever! We've got real potential conflict between the US and China over Taiwan where you can imagine scenarios that bring nuclear deterrence to the center. There are Indo-Pak scenarios. On balance, thus far, the number of worrying cases where nuclear deterrence could fail remains quite small. But the stakes or so hi, and the odds so changed by an increase in number of nuclear actors, that one has to ask if nuclear deterrence is a good crutch to rely on forever. I don't know the answer!

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Sure the U.S. ended WWII with two nukes. It was the end of a six-year-long (for some nations), costly, incredibly destructive war. Compare the death and suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the suffering that would have been caused all over Japan by an allied invasion, and to the suffering of the families of those in the allied countries who would have been killed in such a campaign.

How easy it is to judge the bombing Hiroshima and Nagsaki by people who have never known the real sacrifices of a long and costly war like WWII.

George Periscopic: Please read DeGroot's book because he treats your points quite fairly. He includes at-the-time studies that debunk many of our post facto assumptions about the casualties that nukes spared. A stronger argument to make your case would be that we already had resorted to mass-casualty terror bombing at Dresden and in Tokyo, so the nuclear attacks were a simple extension. Another issue worthy of thought is this: maybe the Hiroshima bomb did save, net, many lives, but was the Nagasaki bomb necessary? Shouldn't a distinction be made there? The best evidence for why the Nagasaki bomb was dropped is that it existed, was a different design than Hiroshima, and the labs and military wanted to see how it worked...in other words, no one really thought about holding it back or whether it was necessary. The most important point to me, and one I tried to make in the review, is whatever were the arguments in 1945, we do see how easy it is to rationalize types of killing that we absolutely condemn as absolutely savage when other people undertake them. So if we want to create a moral rejection of killing non-combatants, which I believe we do as the President has insisted, then we have to combat the tendency to rationalize use of whatever weapon one has -- nukes or aircraft into buildings. You can't do this selectively AND make it a moral argument. If you do it selectively, it's a political/strategic argument, and then anything goes.

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Washington, D.C.: So you believe that terrorist groups are rational actors? If al Qaeda saw crashing planes and killing thousands as in their interest, how will they not see killing hundreds of thousands as in their interest?

George Perkovich: I believe we have to make distinctions among terrorist groups, first of all. How has Hamas targeted? LTTE? IRA? Al Qaeda? Then, look at Al Qaeda's targeting from the mid-1990s. Out of chronological order but as they come to me: USS Cole, US embassies, military base in Saudi Arabia, then, yes the World Trade Center AND the Pentagon. These are not random targets filled with innocent people -- the Superdome. They are targets that fit a political narrative, a strategy that requires rationalizing targets as legitimate. Admittedly, over time, the rationalizations have gotten broader and less disciplined and coherent, but read the bin Laden explanations after each attack, and you'll see he tries to frame them in quite a rational model. This in no way justifies it, it merely calls for greater care, it seems to me, in devising how to separate the terrorists from the communities they try to rally to their side with their explanations. Another example, he felt the need to get a fatwa to legitimate the potential use of WMD. I have read it, and it's quite chilling and intellectually flawed, but it is a rational construct. This is different from the kids at Columbine or apocalyptic, end-of-earth type terrorists. Little consolation, and we still have to kill them, but our other task is to separate them from their potential supporters, and that's where knowing their rationale is important I believe.

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Munich, Germany: I come from a nuclear family that even includes a Research Director for a well known Canadian firm. I've always been a supporter of nuclear power, and I've always believed that a WW III, if it ever occurs, will be due to crude oil and gasoline shortages, and that nuclear power could prevent such a catastrophic conflict.

My question is, does DeGroot get into the dilemma surrounding the acquisition of nuclear technology by so-called rogue states, and the inevitable foreign policy changes required by the U.S. and its allies?

George Perkovich: Good question. His book really ends with the end of the Cold War. He writes a bit about the 90s and post9/11 situation, but it's a sort of wrapping up. The value of the book, and it's heart, is the Cold War story. This is what I tried to suggest in my last para: many of the themes and effects he describes, including for example the British and French decisions to get the bomb, relate to the current situation, but DeGroot's narrative prompts comparisons that help you realize the differences between then and now. He doesn't get into "now" per se.

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Arlington, Va.: Actors that break the rules of warfare, lose some of the protections of the rules of warfare. The Axis started terror bombing in World War II and the Allies responded in kind. Do you see a difference between initiating attacks directed at civilians and responding to those attacks, or is it all the same to you?

George Perkovich: There is a difference, but it's a finer one than we may immediately appreciate. Indeed, I think most U.S. presidents have understood this: if we lost 10 million people and now the president is faced with a decision to retaliate, is it right to kill 10 million of their people? Most presidents would be squeamish (sic?). So, you construct edifices of deterrence, and also of preventive/pre-emptive forces to avoid being put in that position. Also, ask, what does it mean to win? During Cold War, our strategic planners thought that if we obliterated all of the Soviet Union and were left with 2 Americans, we won. Really? And did fire bombing -- terror bombing work? I'm not saying whether it was justified morally or not, but was it necessary? Just because we did it does not make it necessary, or effective, or morally justified. Each category should be answered separately. So, I ask, what level of destructiveness do we need now in order to achieve strategic objectives? Maybe it is the capacity to destroy everyone on the planet, maybe it's not. If I look at the extreme, laudable caution US operators displayed in selecting targets in the Iraq war, I conclude that judgments are made to limit casualties and that these judgments are informed by moral-political considerations and a sense of how to win wars. Maybe responding to attacks on the WTC by attacking villages randomly in Afghanistan would be justified as you seem to imply in the tit-for-tat logic, but I'm glad we didn't proceed that way.

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Arlington, Va.: I have also read that material. I won't quibble with your other targets, but al Qaeda targeted the World Trade Center specifically because it would be a mass-casualty civilian target, and a dramatic one at that. I think you give al Qaeda too much credit; they will seek to detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city if they can design a well-executed plan and have the materials.

George Perkovich: Re WTC, dramatic event was intended, to be sure. And certainly a premeditated will to kill civilians. But again, a highly symbolic colonialist target, not a random civilian one -- not the Empire State Building, or the John Hancock Tower in Boston or the Sears Tower in Chicago.....I don't want to make too much of this, but I think there are ways to channel the way they fight. I cannot say with any confidence that I'm right and that they wouldn't detonate a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city -- and I think we have to assume they would. Yet, publicly, I think we would be much smarter to say and argue that they would not, because they claim to be on the side of justice and there is no conception of justice that would allow detonating a nuclear weapon in a city of a country that is not at war with Muslims. In other words, I think we should be arguing in the categories of Just War against their use of these weapons rather than saying that of course they will use them if they can get them. I would concentrate on mobilizing religious leaders and others in Muslim countries to denounce in advance the use of such weapons as, for example, Ayatollah Khamenei has done in Iran. Thin reeds that I would not lean on, but they cost nothing to grow.

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Alexandria, Va.: Will the rising tension in Southeast Asia lead the Japanese to become a nuclear power? I know it is forbidden in their constitution, but deterrence is more important to them.

George Perkovich: I believe that Japanese leaders will drift toward hedging their nuclear commitments and posture. They will do so less because of insecurity in the military sense, and more because of assertive nationalism and the feeling that only countries with nuclear weapons get respect. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, and it can be headed off with very smart diplomacy.

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Rockville, Md.: Short of preemptive strikes, don't you think it is only a matter of time before Iran has nukes? How long till they do? I've seen everything from 18 months to 10 years. But that they will have the bomb seems not in question, unless Israel/U.S. militarily pre-empts.

George Perkovich: If I thought that pre-emptive strikes would solve the problem, I would be more relaxed. Unfortunately, I am among many people, including in Israel, who think strikes won't do the trick and will have effects that make our net position worse. I believe that Iran can be stopped, but only if the US and the EU are completely locked together. And if it can't be persuaded to give up uranium enrichment technology completely, which is the right goal, it could be persuaded to follow the Japanese model of acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons without actually constructing the weapons. So this issue is quite fluid and nothing is inevitable, I would say.

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Lusby, Md.: Anyone can rationalize and it is obvious you are inclined to accept the rationalizations of the terrorists more readily than those of the U.S. government.

George Perkovich: I did not accept the rationalization of terrorists at all, and I'm not sure what rationalization of the US government you are talking about. I am concentrating on how to prevent terrorists or anyone else from getting and detonating nuclear weapons, period. To do that, it seems to me we should try to figure out how best to undermine the receptivity of non-terrorists to the terrorists' use of nuclear weapons. That seems like good strategy to me that costs nothing. The terrorists have to be killed, simply. That's straightforward enough. The rest is more complicated. What is it that alarmed you in what I said before?

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George Perkovich: Dear All, thank you very much for participating. I learned a lot from the questions. I hope you will read the DeGroot book as it is a good stimulus on these issues. Best, George Perkovich

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