Bin Laden and Nuclear Deterrence

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Not even nuclear weapons deterred the U.S. from killing bin Laden.

By Elbridge Colby

The eminently gratifying and important killing of Osama bin Ladin is raising a host of questions – about the future of our counterterrorism policy, our relations with Pakistan, the revolutions in the Middle East, etc. One aspect that hasn’t been emphasized as much is that the United States just conducted a kinetic military operation within the confines of a nuclear-armed sovereign nation without its consent. Indeed, reports indicate that the Pakistanis scrambled interceptors once they picked up signs of the U.S. helicopters.

This is interesting because it is further demonstration that there are limits to how expansively nuclear weapons deter. Even if a country, like Pakistan, has a well-established and pretty formidable nuclear weapons capability, another nation has shown itself to be willing and able to penetrate its airspace, insert soldiers onto the ground, conduct military operations and kill targeted individuals – all without Islamabad’s consent. That’s striking because many argue that nuclear weapons possession so radically transforms the way nations behave – irrespective of the posture and nature of the states’ dispute – that possessing states will be protected from any significant military actions, certainly against their home territory. They will, so the argument goes, be so shielded from retort by their nuclear umbrella that they will have leave to get away with almost anything, such as sheltering Osama bin Ladin. There is some amount of truth to this view, of course. Nuclear weapons have enormous deterrent power, and countries will think far more carefully about taking serious action against a nuclear-armed power than against one without means of massively destructive reprisal.

Yet the commendable U.S. decision to go after bin Ladin – in an operation that involved inserting forces right into the middle of a nuclear-armed country and with full knowledge of the possibility that there could be shooting between U.S. and Pakistani forces – shows that nuclear weapons do not provide blanket protection for all manner of evils. Countries that have nuclear weapons can still be confronted and operated against without spurring escalation to nuclear use, particularly when the objective pursued is limited and discriminate, and especially when that objective is connected to a truly vital national interest. Presumably the president’s calculus was that there was almost no conceivable chance that Pakistan would resort to a nuclear response against the United States, which would be perforce irrational given America’s vast retaliatory capability, and that that miniscule probability was outweighed by the great national interest in taking just vengeance on the murderer of almost 3,000 Americans.

This fact should be borne in mind as we consider how to deal with today’s nuclear aspirants – and, perhaps more importantly, should be borne in mind by them. They may, despite our best efforts, succeed in getting nuclear weapons. But this will not give them blank check immunity to harbor the worst terrorists or continually attack South Korea with impunity. If we have the resolve, we can still take discriminate but effective action.


Elbridge Colby served most recently with the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the New START agreement negotiation and ratification effort. Previously, he served as an advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission and with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed here are his own.

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