Five years ago, Israeli fighter jets destroyed a nuclear installation in Syria. According to an Oct. 6 2007 news report in The Spectator, a “very senior British ministerial source” retrospectively assessed the surgical strike as a white-knuckle gamble. “If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic_. [Prime Minister] Gordon [Brown] really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon,” he told the paper.
Why was the Syrian strike so risky? The unidentified minister didn’t share any classified details, but in his 2011 book How The End Begins, investigative journalist Ron Rosebaum notes the former Soviet Union has the same satellite surveillance capability as the U.S., “and would have picked up on the Israeli jets takeoff and-in the context of threats and counterthreats exchanged between Iran and Israel over the Iranian nuclear weapons program-they may well have warned the Iranians, with whom they have murky military and nuclear ties, that a potential Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities was underway. The Russians could easily have fired off an electronic warning to the Israelis not to attack Iran-and/or Syria-and implicitly or explicitly threatened “severe consequences’ or some other euphemism for putting nukes on the table.”
Russia has let the U.S. know it will not stand idly by if NATO forces lead a land invasion of Syria under the pretext of humanitarian intervention. Russia and China are economic/political allies of Iran. In a world that has reverted to a crazy quilt of alliances resembling pre-First World War Europe, it wouldn’t take much for conventional warfare to shade into unconventional annihilation, a point Rosenbaum makes with insistence.
Yet for the past two decades, the possibility of atomic war sparked by any of the Nuclear Nine (The U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, Pakistan, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) has been overshadowed by other mass fears, from global warming to bird flu to underwear/shoe bombers to-ironically-Iran’s nascent nuclear program.
Whenever government officials begin severing diplomatic connections-as last week, when Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird huffed and puffed and blew the doors closed on the Canadian embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in Toronto-the paranoiac thinking goes up on all sides while the odds against humanity’s long-term survival goes down another notch.
Baird and his boss would do well to remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “to jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”
U.S. president Barack Obama should take note as well, considering his enthusiasm for using unmanned drones for missile attacks from Pakistan to Yemen to Afghanistan. According to a recent report in The New York Times, Obama holds what insiders call “Terror Tuesday meetings”-regular get-togethers with his national security team to select who is to be assassinated by drone.
Destabilizing Pakistan by default or design is not a good strategic move. The most worrisome scenario of all doesn’t involve a uranium-enriched Iran, but a nuclear exchange between long-term enemies Pakistan and India. This wouldn’t just kill millions outright; it would also cripple global agriculture and precipitate planetary economic collapse, according to Scientific American.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis isn’t the only time the world has close to atomic Armageddon. Throughout the Cold War there were at least six documented incidents of mistaken signals that nearly resulted in nukes flying between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A flight of geese was the source in one incident, a Norwegian missile launch in another, and a rising moon in another.
Military signals can be notoriously ambiguous, and the difficulty of interpretation grows when geopolitical tensions are high. In 1983, Soviet sensors misinterpreted sunlight reflected from high-altitude clouds as an ICBM launch from the U.S. The only thing that saved civilization was the last-minute decision of Lieut. Stanislav Petrov to refuse instructions to push the button.
That long-standing acronym of nuclear deterrence, “MAD”-Mutually Assured Destruction-is a bang-on descriptor of world leaders’ insane persistence in playing atomic chicken, especially given past events involving mistaken signals.
The words of Albert Einstein still ring true: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”