Atomic Alarmism

, Sarah Carlsruh, Leave a comment

Struggling to decide between confrontation and engagement, the Obama administration is engaging in diplomatic talks with Iran, but has not yet ruled out force as an option.  If the Obama administration were to believe John Mueller’s book, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al Qaeda, they could abandon diplomatic engagement completely and rest easy. Mueller, who spoke at the Cato Institute on October 29th and is the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University, called his book a “cure for insomnia,” since it should ease late-night fears of nuclear destruction.

In his slide show, Mueller claimed that atomic weapons’ “destructive capacity has been commonly exaggerated.” While making it clear that he is not trying to trivialize nuclear weapons, he argued that “they are not necessarily the end of the world;”

According to Mueller, the U.S. has invented “a new category, which is called weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), and is loosely defined to include categories which are not, in fact, able to destroy things en masse.’s WMD webpage calls weapons of mass destruction “a serious concern,” saying that “chemical, biological, and radiological/nuclear materials—what we call weapons of mass destruction or WMD—[are] being used to attack the U.S.” Mueller mockingly pointed out that, according to the U.S. government, “hand grenades are weapons of mass destruction.” does, in fact, define WMD’s as any “explosive or incendiary device…bomb, grenade, rocket, missile, mine, or other device with a charge of more than four ounces.”

Colin Powell attested to the military uselessness of atomic bombs in his book, My American Journey; in regards to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he said that “To do serious damage to just one armored division dispersed in the desert would require a considerable number of small tactical nuclear weapons.”

Another of Mueller’s slides stated that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than predicted because the weapons do not generally convey much advantage to their possessor.”  He argued that, despite the rhetoric, there is no tipping point in nuclear proliferation, in large part because the “economic and organizational cost of fabricating a nuclear arsenal can be monumental.” Libya spent approximately $100 million on nukes and it ended up merely in its preparatory stages before efforts were abandoned; Khadafi gave up, stated Mueller.

Mueller also pointed out that “efforts to keep rogue states from obtaining nuclear weapons have been substantially counter-productive,” arguing that the death toll in Iraq war has surpassed any potential danger of potential Iraqi WMD’s.

Panelist Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center for international peace and security, agreed with Mueller’s assertion of threat inflation. Cold War mistakes, he claimed, were mostly monetary— the U.S. spent over $5 trillion on all things nuclear and built about 75,000 atom bombs. However, with the Iraq war, “threat inflation has let to a preventative war,” agreed Krepon.

Mueller argued that the likelihood that terrorists will be able to get a bomb is minuscule. He outlined and debunked the different theories as to how the terrorists could, in theory, gain nuclear capabilities. He deemed it “very unlikely” that any state would simply give terrorists a bomb since, in all likelihood, the bomb would be traced back to that state. Mueller also said that terrorists could not easily steal a bomb since states tend to take “security of their bomb very seriously.”

Pakistan, for example, keeps their bombs in pieces and few people know how to assemble the pieces, while even fewer are trained to trigger the explosive. Terrorists could possibly develop the bombs from scratch, but he blithely dismissed that option as too time-consuming and costly.  The only truly viable option for terrorists would be to make a bomb with stolen fissile material, but even in that scenario the resulting bomb would be large, cumbersome, and unreliable, claimed Mueller.

In contrast, former CIA Director George Tenet stated in his memoirs that al Qaeda’s leadership has stayed “singularly focused on acquiring WMD” and was willing to “pay whatever it would cost to get their hands on fissile material,” reported a May 2008 Washington Post article.

Michael Krepon recently published Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb in which he claims that his “professional work has long revolved around trying to prevent big explosions.” Even though Mueller’s book contradicts much of Krepon’s life’s work, Krepon claimed that “Mueller is correct” so far. Krepon then explained that Mueller’s glib attitude towards nuclear policy “only has to be proven wrong once.”

“Since 1945, there has not been a third battlefield use” of nuclear weapons, observed Krepon; even though there has been ample motive and opportunity, “it has not happened yet.” Thus, he concluded that nuclear powers “must have done something right to prevent these nuclear nightmares.” Yet, since it is unclear which strategy—deterrence, political engagement, arms control—has prevented nuclear attacks, he argued that “it would be wise… not to take anything out of the toolkit.”

Sarah Carlsruh is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.