April 6, 2009

How To Use Hole Cards: Play It Cool

Now, Newt Gingrich has to get the nod for coolest line of the week, when he urged President Obama to attempt to prevent the North Koreans from launching their ill-concealed ICBM test very early this morning with our SDI program -- in other words, using frickin' laser beams to take down the missiles -- but the calm, no-drama approach is probably the better one.

Here's why -- it's not clear how good the system is just yet. It's not been (publicly) put to a full-scale test. So that means that we could try to shoot the North Korean missile out of the sky, and we would either succeed or fail.

If we succeed, then we proceed to scare the hell out of everyone. Which means we're back in the 1960's with the missle gap, only done in a multipolar instead of a bipolar world. If we're suddenly immune to missiles, that changes the game in terms of balance of power and utility of nuclear weapons. The right game-theory response to an adversary who can demonstrate immunity to nuclear missiles is to make lots and lots and lots of nuclear missiles -- so many that when they're all fired at once, they overwhelm the missile defense system, and some get through.

If we fail, then we get egg on our face. We prove to the world that we can spend a ton of money and get nothing to show for it. Which encourages our enemies to build more missiles at a time when they have none (or few) because they know that despite our best efforts, they will have a way to attack us which we cannot defend.

Better to develop and test the system privately and keep its efficacy a secret. A missle defense system's political utility comes best from everyone's not knowing how good it really is. No one knew in the 1980's that our technology couldn't possibly have shot a Soviet missile out of the sky. But because the Soviets didn't know, they had to react as if it worked, which caused them to go bankrupt and disband the USSR completely.

So while 57% of Americans think a military response to the North Korean missile launch is warranted, cooler heads should prevail. For one thing, we need to realize that we're looking at the fruits of the North Korean agricultural and economic program -- native agriculture is so inefficient in that nation that there is massive starvation despite having plenty of fertile, arable land. So North Korea extorts food from the rest of the world. We learned in the Cold War that you can starve an enemy into submission, and cruel as that may seem to the innocent people who are enslaved by their government there, that is probably the best way to effect change in that part of the world.

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