A couple of hundred thousand years ago, an M 7.2 earthquake shook what is now New Hampshire. Just a few thousand years ago, an M 7.5 quake ruptured just off the coast of Massachusetts. And then there’s New York.
Since the first western settlers arrived there, the state has witnessed 200 quakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater, making it the third most seismically active state east of the Mississippi (Tennessee and South Carolina are ranked numbers one and two, respectively). About once a century, New York has also experienced an M 5.0 quake capable of doing real damage.
The most recent one near New York City occurred in August of 1884. Centered off Long Island’s Rockaway Beach, it was felt over 70,000 square miles. It also opened enormous crevices near the Brooklyn reservoir and knocked down chimneys and cracked walls in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Police on the Brooklyn Bridge said it swayed “as if struck by a hurricane” and worried the bridge’s towers would collapse. Meanwhile, residents throughout New York and New Jersey reported sounds that varied from explosions to loud rumblings, sometimes to comic effect. At the funeral of Lewis Ingler, a small group of mourners were watching as the priest began to pray. The quake cracked an enormous mirror behind the casket and knocked off a display of flowers that had been resting on top of it. When it began to shake the casket’s silver handles, the mourners decided the unholy return of Lewis Ingler was more than they could take and began flinging themselves out windows and doors.
Not all stories were so light. Two people died during the quake, both allegedly of fright. Out at sea, the captain of the brig Alice felt a heavy lurch that threw him and his crew, followed by a shaking that lasted nearly a minute. He was certain he had hit a wreck and was taking on water.
A day after the quake, the editors of The New York Times sought to allay readers’ fear. The quake, they said, was an unexpected fluke never to be repeated and not worth anyone’s attention: “History and the researches of scientific men indicate that great seismic disturbances occur only within geographical limits that are now well defined,” they wrote in an editorial. “The northeastern portion of the United States . . . is not within those limits.” The editors then went on to scoff at the histrionics displayed by New York residents when confronted by the quake: “They do not stop to reason or to recall the fact that earthquakes here are harmless phenomena. They only know that the solid earth, to whose immovability they have always turned with confidence when everything else seemed transitory, uncertain, and deceptive, is trembling and in motion, and the tremor ceases long before their disturbed minds become tranquil.”
That’s the kind of thing that drives Columbia’s Heather Savage nuts.
Across town, Charles Merguerian has been studying these faults the old‐fashioned way: by getting down and dirty underground. He’s spent the past forty years sloshing through some of the city’s muckiest places: basements and foundations, sewers and tunnels, sometimes as deep as 750 feet belowground. His tools down there consist primarily of a pair of muck boots, a bright blue hard hat, and a pickax. In public presentations, he claims he is also ably abetted by an assistant hamster named Hammie, who maintains his own website, which includes, among other things, photos of the rodent taking down Godzilla.
That’s just one example why, if you were going to cast a sitcom starring two geophysicists, you’d want Savage and Merguerian to play the leading roles. Merguerian is as eccentric and flamboyant as Savage is earnest and understated. In his press materials, the former promises to arrive at lectures “fully clothed.” Photos of his “lab” depict a dingy porta‐john in an abandoned subway tunnel. He actively maintains an archive of vintage Chinese fireworks labels at least as extensive as his list of publications, and his professional website includes a discography of blues tunes particularly suitable for earthquakes. He calls female science writers “sweetheart” and somehow manages to do so in a way that kind of makes them like it (although they remain nevertheless somewhat embarrassed to admit it).
It’s Merguerian’s boots‐on‐the‐ground approach that has provided much of the information we need to understand just what’s going on underneath Gotham. By his count, Merguerian has walked the entire island of Manhattan: every street, every alley. He’s been in most of the tunnels there, too. His favorite one by far is the newest water tunnel in western Queens. Over the course of 150 days, Merguerian mapped all five miles of it. And that mapping has done much to inform what we know about seismicity in New York.
Most importantly, he says, it provided the first definitive proof of just how many faults really lie below the surface there. And as the city continues to excavate its subterranean limits, Merguerian is committed to following closely behind. It’s a messy business.
Down below the city, Merguerian encounters muck of every flavor and variety. He power‐washes what he can and relies upon a diver’s halogen flashlight and a digital camera with a very, very good flash to make up the difference. And through this process, Merguerian has found thousands of faults, some of which were big enough to alter the course of the Bronx River after the last ice age.
His is a tricky kind of detective work. The center of a fault is primarily pulverized rock. For these New York faults, that gouge was the very first thing to be swept away by passing glaciers. To do his work, then, he’s primarily looking for what geologists call “offsets”—places where the types of rock don’t line up with one another. That kind of irregularity shows signs of movement over time—clear evidence of a fault.
Merguerian has found a lot of them underneath New York City.
Each time that occurred, the land currently known as the Mid‐Atlantic underwent an accordion effect as it was violently folded into itself again and again. The process created immense mountains that have eroded over time and been further scoured by glaciers. What remains is a hodgepodge of geological conditions ranging from solid bedrock to glacial till to brittle rock still bearing the cracks of the collision. And, says Merguerian, any one of them could cause an earthquake.
In our lifetimes, a series of small earthquakes have been recorded on the Manhattanville Fault including, most recently, one on October 27, 2001. Its epicenter was located around 55th and 8th—directly beneath the original Original Soupman restaurant, owned by restaurateur Ali Yeganeh, the inspiration for Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. That fact delighted sitcom fans across the country, though few Manhattanites were in any mood to appreciate it.
The October 2001 quake itself was small—about M 2.6—but the effect on residents there was significant. Just six weeks prior, the city had been rocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers. The team at Lamont‐Doherty has maintained a seismic network in the region since the ’70s. They registered the collapse of the first tower at M 2.1. Half an hour later, the second tower crumbled with even more force and registered M 2.3. In a city still shocked by that catastrophe, the early‐morning October quake—several times greater than the collapse of either tower—jolted millions of residents awake with both reminders of the tragedy and fear of yet another attack. 9‐1‐1 calls overwhelmed dispatchers and first responders with reports of shaking buildings and questions about safety in the city. For seismologists, though, that little quake was less about foreign threats to our soil and more about the possibility of larger tremors to come.
“Gee whiz!” He laughs when I pose this question. “That’s the holy grail of seismicity, isn’t it?”
He says all we can do to answer that question is “take the pulse of what’s gone on in recorded history.” To really have an answer, we’d need to have about ten times as much data as we do today. But from what he’s seen, the faults below New York are very much alive.
“These guys are loaded,” he tells me.
He says he is also concerned about new studies of a previously unknown fault zone known as the Ramapo that runs not far from the city. Savage shares his concerns. They both think it’s capable of an M 6.0 quake or even higher—maybe even a 7.0. If and when, though, is really anybody’s guess.
“We literally have no idea what’s happening in our backyard,” says Savage.
Merguerian has been sounding the alarm about earthquake risk in the city since the ’90s. He admits he hasn’t gotten much of a response. He says that when he first proposed the idea of seismic risk in New York City, his fellow scientists “booed and threw vegetables” at him. He volunteered his services to the city’s Office of Emergency Management but says his original offer also fell on deaf ears.
“So I backed away gently and went back to academia.”
Today, he says, the city isn’t much more responsive, but he’s getting a much better response from his peers.
He’s glad for that, he says, but it’s not enough. If anything, the events of 9/11, along with the devastation caused in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy, should tell us just how bad it could be there.
He and Savage agree that what makes the risk most troubling is just how little we know about it. When it comes right down to it, intraplate faults are the least understood. Some scientists think they might be caused by mantle flow deep below the earth’s crust. Others think they might be related to gravitational energy. Still others think quakes occurring there might be caused by the force of the Atlantic ridge as it pushes outward. Then again, it could be because the land is springing back after being compressed thousands of years ago by glaciers (a phenomenon geologists refer to as seismic rebound).
With its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964, China joined the other victorious allies of World War II in the nuclear club, both cementing and unsettling the postwar order. Hard experience of the American nuclear threat during the Korean War and the divorce from the Soviet Union, propelled China towards the bomb in ways familiar to those observing North Korea’s current quest. Mao Zedong himself said in 1956, “…if we don’t want to be bullied, we have to have this thing.”
But China for all its size has made itself a limited nuclear power. It has demonstrated its ability to build very big bombs but chose to test and make few of them. The size of China’s arsenal is a highly guarded state secret, but estimates put it in the several hundreds, not thousands. Beijing can hold armies and cities at risk, but not make the rubble bounce several times over.
During the palmy days of the 1950s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics shared technical, industrial and military knowledge and material with its new communist sibling. However, by the early 1960s the relationship was on the rocks, inflamed in part by Soviet alarm at Mao’s erratic behavior and Chinese irritation over the USSR’s support of India. Without Moscow’s promised bomb prototype and fissionable material the Chinese had to do it themselves.
The first Chinese nuclear device, code-named “596” for “June 1959” when it began, was like the Soviet Union’s and Britain’s first bombs, in that it was a close copy of the “Fat Man” implosion bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Its yield – 22 kilotons – also closely matched the others but its fuel was pure Uranium-235 rather than plutonium. The CIA knew of China’s upcoming test from its new Corona spy satellites and the State Department sought to reduce the impact of the test by announcing it in advance.
Nonetheless the advent of China as the world’s fifth nuclear power caused an uproar. Taiwan wanted U.S. backing for either a preemptive strike or its own nukes. (Neither came.) U.S. analysts had missed China’s U-235 production and wondered what else they’d missed. Diplomats began exploring non-proliferation talks with the Soviets. But doubts still floated about China’s nuclear status. Sure, they now had the bomb, but could they fight with it?
So on October 27, 1966 a DF-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile flew 550 miles over populated parts of China to Lop Nur where its 12-kiloton warhead detonated 180 feet over the Gobi Desert. It was the second all-up nuclear missile test ever conducted after the U.S. Frigate Bird test of 1962, and it quieted doubts about China’s nukes.
Even as the Cultural Revolution began roiling China the nuclear tests continued; a month after the missile test a 300-kiloton boosted-fission explosion showcased their design of a hydrogen bomb. Six months later on June 17, 1967, only two and a half years after its first nuclear test, China tested an air-deliverable thermonuclear weapon.
The three-stage device used a fission primary (an A-bomb) to heat and compress a second stage of lithium-6 deuteride powder. A third stage was a heavy shell of uranium-238, which held the explosion together for just long enough for the hydrogen in the lithium compound to undergo nuclear fusion. The resulting burst of neutrons caused the U-238 shell to fission and explode.
The bomb yielded 3.3 megatons – big by any measure, big enough to destroy Tokyo or Los Angeles or Moscow. China ran the race to the H-bomb faster than any nation before or since that we know of.
In 1967, China’s attempt at using plutonium in a bomb fizzled, but it was successful in another test in December of 1968. This 3.0 megaton shot, and others with yields of 3-3.4 megatons, were also tested in 1969, 1972 and 1973. In addition, all of these tests were for fitting a large warhead on the DF-3 ICBM. They represent all but the largest Chinese tests. After all of this work, China conducted its biggest test, a 4.0 megaton blast, in November 1976. That test proved the capability of the DF-5 ICBM’s warhead.
A. We’re basically looking at a lot more rock, and we’re looking at the fracturing and jointing in the bedrock and putting it on the maps. Any break in the rock is a fracture. If it has movement, then it’s a fault. There are a lot of faults that are offshoots of the Ramapo. Basically when there are faults, it means you had an earthquake that made it. So there was a lot of earthquake activity to produce these features. We are basically not in a period of earthquake activity along the Ramapo Fault now, but we can see that about six or seven times in history, about 250 million years ago, it had major earthquake activity. And because it’s such a fundamental zone of weakness, anytime anything happens, the Ramapo Fault goes.
A. I found a lot of faults, splays that offshoot from the Ramapo that go 5 to 10 miles away from the fault. I have looked at the Ramapo Fault in other places too. I have seen splays 5 to 10 miles up into the Hudson Highlands. And you can see them right along the roadsides on 287. There’s been a lot of damage to those rocks, and obviously it was produced by fault activities. All of these faults have earthquake potential.
Q. Describe the 1884 earthquake.
A. It was in the northern part of the state near the Sloatsburg area. They didn’t have precise ways of describing the location then. There was lots of damage. Chimneys toppled over. But in 1884, it was a farming community, and there were not many people to be injured. Nobody appears to have written an account of the numbers who were injured.
Q. What lessons we can learn from previous earthquakes?
A. In 1960, the city of Agadir in Morocco had a 6.2 earthquake that killed 12,000 people, a third of the population, and injured a third more. I think it was because the city was unprepared.There had been an earthquake in the area 200 years before. But people discounted the possibility of a recurrence. Here in New Jersey, we should not make the same mistake. We should not forget that we had a 5.4 earthquake 117 years ago. The recurrence interval for an earthquake of that magnitude is every 50 years, and we are overdue. The Agadir was a 6.2, and a 5.4 to a 6.2 isn’t that big a jump.
Q. What are the dangers of a quake that size?
A. When you’re in a flat area in a wooden house it’s obviously not as dangerous, although it could cut off a gas line that could explode. There’s a real problem with infrastructure that is crumbling, like the bridges with crumbling cement. There’s a real danger we could wind up with our water supplies and electricity cut off if a sizable earthquake goes off. The best thing is to have regular upkeep and keep up new building codes. The new buildings will be O.K. But there is a sense of complacency.
The US has never come to terms with Iran’s new political order that emerged after the 1979 revolution, which brought down the Shah and his regime. The Shah of Iran was a compliant ruler who fitted well into the US’ strategy in the Middle East. The clerical regime that followed was anything but. There were fears that it would destabilise the region, shared by the US’ friends and allies in the region. And those fears have been resurrected, with President Trump dumping the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran designed to curb its nuclear programme. We will come to this later but, first, to sketch out a bit of history after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Among the US friends, at the time, was Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who had a long-standing maritime boundary dispute with Iran, and was keen to settle scores with the new regime before it had time to settle down. The US encouraged him on this course and provided him with military aid to take on Iran.
Thus started the Iraq-Iran war in 1980 that lasted eight years, with Iran bearing the brunt of heavy casualties. Iraq was drained out economically, with the country owing debts it had incurred from fellow Arab countries to prosecute the war, which they had encouraged. And they seemed in no mood to write off these debts. Saddam sought to sort out his political and economic problems by invading Kuwait, keen to annex it with its oil riches. The adventure was foiled by the US-led military action that left Saddam choking, with international sanctions choking Iraq.
And when the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit the US, it was followed by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan because of its link with the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin-Laden, based there and sheltered by its Taliban regime. The US then had George W Bush as its president and the new regime set out to reset Middle Eastern affairs, starting with getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime as it was regarded as unfinished business from the time of Bush senior.
And they started creating narratives about Saddam’s al-Qaeda links and his weapons of mass destruction, which were found to be non-existent. Saddam was overthrown and hanged, followed by an unstable and chaotic Iraq, which to this day is in a state of perpetual disorder, bordering on anarchy. The resultant sectarian strife led to the emergence of IS, which, though seemingly beaten now in Iraq and Syria, exists as a powerful ideology wreaking havoc inside and outside Iraq.
The majority Shia rule in Iraq, though with deep divisions, gave Iran considerable political influence in Iraq. Some of its prominent leaders were living in exile in Iran during Saddam’s rule.
And this program was reaching an advanced stage. There were two ways to deal with it. First was to attack and destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, though it wasn’t that easy because, unlike Saddam Hussein’s research reactor that Israel was able to destroy earlier, the Iranian facilities were less exposed to such instant hits by enemy bombers. Therefore, there was greater risk of things getting out of control.
Israel still favoured this option, provided it had the US backing and protective cover. The US, under Obama, was not convinced. Obama wanted greater flexibility in the US’ Middle Eastern policy, and permanently ostracising Iran with its growing nuclear capability, was no way to go about it; especially when Iran was willing to rewind its nuclear programme. The Israeli alternative of attacking Iran’s fairly secure nuclear facilities, with unpredictable and disastrous results for the region, didn’t seem like a sensible course. Obama, therefore, opted for sanity over petulance and Trump’s instinctive sense that he would be right.
Going by the US intelligence and International Atomic Energy Agency inspection reports, Iran has held its part of the 2015 nuclear deal to wind back much of its nuclear programme. If the agreement hadn’t been in place, Iran would have been close to, if not actually, developing a nuclear weapon, if it had chosen to do so.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Steven Simon says that, “Between 2006, when nuclear-related sanctions were first put in place, and 2013, when the interim deal freezing Iran’s capability was agreed on, the number of centrifuges increased from few, if any, to nearly 20,000…. Given that Iran was installing about 3,000 centrifuges per year while under intensive sanctions, had there not been the agreement, Iran would now have yet another 15,000 centrifuges.” In other words, the agreement was doing its job.
Why is Trump then scrapping it? Trump thinks that Iran is not following its spirit. It is continuing its missiles programme (not covered by the agreement), stoking trouble regionally In Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and refusing to come to terms with Israel’s existence and supporting the Palestinian cause. Last, but not least, Trump is committed to overturning whatever Barack Obama did – a personal crusade Trump has carried out against Obama while the latter was in the White House and now continuing.
Iran, of course, is threatening to restart its nuclear programme if the nuclear deal is scrapped. But it is hoping that other signatories to the 2015 agreement, which include the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia, might be able to salvage it. It would be difficult because the US’ sanctions regime against Iran would also apply to European and other countries doing business with Iran. What does the US hope to achieve? Well, Trump wants a subservient Iran that will do its bidding, like in the days of the Shah. And it is hoped that crippling sanctions against Iran would create popular unrest leading to the overthrow of its clerical regime, replacing it with a responsive (to the US) political order enabling it to restructure Middle Eastern geopolitical atlas.
A surprising thing has happened in the years since. After a series of violent clashes and reversals, Sadr has refashioned himself as Iraq’s premier nationalist statesman. Despite a very recent historical reputation as a corrupt sectarian warlord, Sadr today has emerged as Iraq’s standard bearer for secularism and reform. Running on an anti-corruption platform, he edged out all others to finish first in Iraq’s national elections earlier this month.
His steady expansion of power over 15 years is a sign of the importance of charisma, staying power and, most importantly, improvisation in a volatile and sharply divided region. Sadr’s case illustrates how a leader benefits from being a known quantity personally, while at the same time bending and shifting his ideology and political to accommodate the political winds.
A decade ago, the young Shiite cleric was fulminating against the Americans and the Iraqi “puppets” they had installed in Baghdad. He often wore a white shroud symbolizing martyrdom as he delivered thunderous Friday sermons. His Shiite militant followers were known for nighttime murders of Sunnis. He set out purist dictates against Western-style hedonism, prompting attacks against gays and liquor stores.
Today, he welcomes not just the communists but also the same secular Iraqis his organization used to target. Sadr’s communications team tweets out his latest edicts, which are more likely to contain anodyne pronouncements about political coalition building rather than fire-and-brimstone warnings against American meddling.
When seeking to predict events in a country such as Iraq, policy experts in the United States and elsewhere routinely focus on deep-seated rifts around ethnicity, ideology, and religious doctrine. What’s easy to underestimate is the role of a troubled nation’s day-to-day domestic political environment — and the skill with which some key leaders navigate it.
Iraq’s domestic politics remain deadlier than those of most other countries, but the system there, as in so many places, rewards politicians who can read the crowd, who channel its frustration with self-dealing elites, and who avoid getting boxed in by their own past.
Sadr is now the single most powerful leader in Iraq, and he brings a more clear platform and set of ambitious national goals to the table than any other political leader. As kingmaker in the complex negotiations to form the next government, he is now in a position to set the government’s agenda with his unlikely — but politically savvy — platform of reform and secular nationalism.
How did Sadr, a militant Shiite cleric once feared as a cat’s paw for Iran, end up as an ornery critic of Iranian influence and as the embodiment of Iraqi nationalism?
Sadr’s father and uncle were revered grand ayatollahs whose teachings guided the behavior of millions of followers and inspired a generation of Shiite Islamist activists. His father was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999, and his fourth son, Moqtada, was considered too young and inexperienced to pose a threat. His Iraqi critics dismissed him as “Ayatollah Atari” — a reference to his love of video games and supposed lack of intellect.
He turned 30 the same year that the United States toppled Saddam and occupied Iraq. Within days of the invasion, Sadr had mobilized legions of followers. The one rival who could have challenged Sadr for leadership of Iraq’s Shiite poor and dispossessed was Abdel Majid al Khoei, an older and far more senior cleric who had fled into exile in London after helping lead an uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Al Khoei returned to Iraq in April 2003, with the blessing of Western troops, and set up operations in Najaf. Within weeks, he was murdered by a frenzied mob. His family, along with US officials, say that the killing was not spontaneous, but was carefully orchestrated by Sadr. Sadr denied the accusation and no one has ever been charged for Al Khoei’s killing.
Sadr quickly established himself as an uncontainable force in Iraq. Almost the entire Shiite establishment cooperated with the US occupation, viewing it as the quickest route to an electoral democracy that would bring power to the Shiite majority. The leading clerics in Najaf endorsed elections under America’s auspices. Opposition militias opened political offices and worked with the occupation authority.
Within a year of Saddam’s ouster, Sadr’s Mahdi Army was fighting an armed rebellion against the American military in central Iraq and the British in the south. Tellingly, Sadr already then couched his rebellion in nationalist terms. He sent reinforcements to the Sunni insurgency in Fallujah, in an effort to craft a trans-sectarian front.
In the seven years that followed, Sadr’s militia starred in some of the worst episodes of violence. They led the charge in the sectarian bloodletting that climaxed in 2006. They declared war against the central government in Baghdad, and were crushed. His political wing won a sizeable bloc in parliament and ran the health sector, winning a reputation for graft, corruption, and poor service.
Sadr retreated into exile in Iran from 2008 to 2011, where he studied with a senior cleric to try to raise his status. He shuttered his militia, and kept a low profile.
By the time he returned, the United States was pulling out its last combat troops from Iraq, and Sadr began his turn toward nationalism and reform.
Unlike other Iraqi leaders, his core following remained devoted to him personally, so he could count on consistent populist support, and votes. And Sadr displayed a willingness to adapt and change. He disavowed the extremist sectarians from his movement, many of whom left to form other militias and parties. He also heaped criticism on Iran for its meddling and mismanagement of Iraq’s interests. He fired and publicly lambasted some of the politicians in his movement who had been found guilty of corruption. And when the Islamic State surged through Iraq, he reestablished his militia (now called the Saraya Salam, or “Peace Brigades”), and joined the ultimately successful struggle to reimpose Baghdad’s authority across the country.
* * *
By 2015, A gray-haired and more muted Sadr had carved out a niche for himself as an anti-sectarian Shiite committed to a functional Iraqi state. That summer, protests broke out across Iraq against the government’s epic failures to provide security, jobs and even basic services like electricity. Sadr shrewdly reached out to the communists and secular reform activists leading the protests. He sent emissaries to Sunnis who felt disenfranchised from the state.
Out of those early meetings an enduring alliance took shape. He took aboard the suggestions of the seasoned reform activists, and decided that what Iraq needed most of all was fresh faces: qualified, independent professionals who could run its eroding government. The housecleaning began inside his own movement. Sadr stunned his parliamentary delegation, telling them he wouldn’t allow any of them to stand for reelection. His successful slate of candidates this year consisted entirely of “technocrats,” people with managerial experience but not any disqualifying political history. Some of Sadr’s own lieutenants questioned the move, arguing that political connections and party backing are crucial for getting things done in Iraq’s fractious and corrupt government, but Sadr was adamant.
He visited Saudi Arabia and endorsed warmer relations between Baghdad and Riyadh, vowing to balance Iraq’s position among the foreign powers with a hand in its politics and security.
There’s a certain Nixon-goes-to-China element to Sadr’s turn to secularism. Only a seasoned militant with impeccable sectarian credentials can make a turn toward pluralistic nationalism. His positions today are all the more plausible because nationalism has been a consistent thread in all his ventures since 2003 — and because he remains a secretive, illiberal leader with untrammeled authority within his own movement. His millions of followers bring him almost exactly the same number of votes during every election. His consistent promise is to seek more jobs and a bigger share of Iraq’s economic pie.
Naturally, there’s plenty of reason not to trust the cleric’s transformation. Sadr is a savvy operator, a seasoned opportunist who has shifted position over and over. He might do so again. And his alliance with the secular reformers and the Iraqi Communist Party could collapse if the next Iraqi government is formed with Sadr’s reformist blessing but still is unable to deliver better results than its predecessors.
In his new incarnation as an aging statesman, Sadr hasn’t shifted all that much. His followers have stopped the vigilante attacks against gays and liquor stores, but they haven’t endorsed social freedoms and rights, either.
In private, diplomats say they don’t expect Sadr to act as a provocateur. His rhetoric can be heated, but he’s a pragmatic politician who regularly meets with Western ambassadors.
Despite his clerical background, Sadr’s goals line up with a strange array of otherwise unlikely allies: secular Iraqi reformists, liberals, Sunnis, militants who want to integrate into the Iraqi state, even some Western governments. Sadr wants a strong government in Baghdad, which makes room for Iraqis of every sectarian, ethnic and political stripe. He also argues that Iraq’s top political jobs cannot be distributed on a sectarian basis, as in Lebanon.
Since 2003, there hasn’t been any parliamentary opposition in any of Iraq’s governments — every single party that has won votes has preferred a position in government so it can extract its share of corruption.
The test for every reformist movement is what happens when it gains significant control over the state. Fulminating against the corruption of past leaders is easy; it’s far harder to resist the temptation to take advantage when your side is in power.
Iraq’s system is so deeply distorted that only a strong jolt can change it. Sadr benefits from longevity, low expectations, and the lack of any more attractive alternative. But sometimes that’s enough.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.
The number of major earthquakes, like the magnitude-7 one that devastated Haiti in 2010, seems to be correlated with minute fluctuations in day length.
SEATTLE—The world doesn’t stop spinning. But every so often, it slows down. For decades, scientists have charted tiny fluctuations in the length of Earth’s day: Gain a millisecond here, lose a millisecond there. Last week at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America here, two geophysicists argued that these minute changes could be enough to influence the timing of major earthquakes—and potentially help forecast them.
Most seismologists agree that earthquake prediction is a minefield. And so far, Bilham and Bendick have only fuzzy, hard-to-test ideas about what might cause the pattern they found. But the finding is too provocative to ignore, other researchers say. “The correlation they’ve found is remarkable, and deserves investigation,” says Peter Molnar, a geologist also at CU.
The research started as a search for synchrony in earthquake timing. Individual oscillators, be they fireflies, heart muscles, or metronomes, can end up vibrating in synchrony as a result of some kind of cross-talk—or some common influence. To Bendick, it didn’t seem a far jump to consider the faults that cause earthquakes, with their cyclical buildup of strain and violent discharge, as “really noisy, really crummy oscillators,” she says. She and Bilham dove into the data, using the only complete earthquake catalog for the past 100 years: magnitude-7 and larger earthquakes.
Exploring such global forces, the researchers eventually discovered the match with the length of day. Although weather patterns such as El Nino can drive day length to vary back and forth by a millisecond over a year or more, a periodic, decades-long fluctuation of several milliseconds—in particular, its point of peak slow down about every three decades or so—lined up with the quake trend perfectly. “Of course that seems sort of crazy,” Bendick says. But maybe it isn’t. When day length changes over decades, Earth’s magnetic field also develops a temporary ripple. Researchers think slight changes in the flow of the molten iron of the outer core may be responsible for both effects. Just what happens is uncertain—perhaps a bit of the molten outer core sticks to the mantle above. That might change the flow of the liquid metal, altering the magnetic field, and transfer enough momentum between the mantle and the core to affect day length.
Seismologists aren’t used to thinking about the planet’s core, buried 2900 kilometers beneath the crust where quakes happen. But they should, Bilham said during his talk here. The core is “quite close to us. It’s closer than New York from here,” he said.
At the equator, Earth spins 460 meters per second. Given this high velocity, it’s not absurd to think that a slight mismatch in speed between the solid crust and mantle and the liquid core could translate into a force somehow nudging quakes into synchrony, Molnar says. Of course, he adds, “It might be nonsense.” But the evidence for some kind of link is compelling, says geophysicist Michael Manga of the University of California, Berkeley. “I’ve worked on earthquakes triggered by seasonal variation, melting snow. His correlation is much better than what I’m used to seeing.”
One way or another, says James Dolan, a geologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, “we’re going to know in 5 years.” That’s because Earth’s rotation began a periodic slow-down 4-plus years ago. Beginning next year, Earth should expect five more major earthquakes a year than average—between 17 to 20 quakes, compared with the anomalously low four so far this year. If the pattern holds, it will put a new spin on earthquake forecasting.
Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, the junior Shi’ite cleric and new kingmaker whose party came out on top in the Iraqi elections a few days ago? Since he doesn’t appear on the list of parliamentary candidates, al-Sadr can’t appoint himself prime minister, but his support will be crucial. His choice for prime minister will have great influence on Iraq’s policies.
Al-Sadr is the third and least impressive son of Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was killed in his car with his two older sons by submachine gun fire at the entrance to the city of Najaf in 1999. The father left al-Sadr two legacies: deep hostility to the United States, Britain and Israel in the spirit of Saddam Hussein, and a strange competition for hegemony in the Shi’ite and Muslim world with the Shi’ite-Iranian religious establishment and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei.
The father would refer to the United States, Britain and Israel as the “wretched triad.” During Friday sermons, his haranguing of this terrible trio bought Sadeq al-Sadr a measure of protection from the paranoia of the Saddam regime, which he also occasionally criticized, albeit in softer language.
Another way to signal to the regime that Saddam’s enemies were his enemies as well, or at least his rivals, was to declare himself wali amar al-muslamin – in charge of all the Muslims and the only one authorized to declare jihad. Thus he assumed a title that Iran had bestowed on only two people: ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. This chutzpah was as pleasant to Saddam’s ears as an Umm Kulthum love song, but it wasn’t relished at all by the Tehran regime, which immediately shut down Sadeq al-Sadr’s offices in Iran and severed ties with him. A few weeks later he was murdered.
It still isn’t clear who assassinated Muqtada’s father. Iran and many Iraqi Shi’ites blamed the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police. The regime vehemently denied the allegations, but no one believed it. Many years later an exiled Iraqi general told this writer that the regime was shocked by the assassination.
Perhaps. Today, people close to al-Sadr hint that it was the Iranians who killed his father.
Al-Sadr has good political, strategic and cultural reasons to keep his distance from Iran. Opinions in Iraq about Iran are divided: Most clerics need Iranian economic assistance and their standing depends on Iran’s recognition. That’s where their support for Iranian involvement in Iraq comes from. On the other hand, the main religious authority for Iraqi Shi’ites, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as well as most clerics in the city of Najaf, which is sacred to the Shi’ites, strongly oppose the extent of Tehran’s influence.
As for the people themselves, Iraqis serving in militias backed by Iran support Iranian influence, but the broader public is reluctant; the Iraqis are Arabs, while the Iranians are Persians. Although both sides are members of the same religious community, they aren’t fond of each other due to cultural-linguistic differences and negative historical memories.
The term al-furas, the Persians, has no positive connotation in Arabic. These reservations are especiall2003y evident among the Shi’ite tribes of southern Iraq and the millions of tribesmen who have migrated to Baghdad from the rural south since the 1930s, many of whom live in a poor neighborhood in northeast Baghdad. Largely thanks to his father, who worked hard to help the tribesmen and the poor, al-Sadr became the most important leader of these Shi’ites after the American invasion of 2003.
Al-Sadr despises Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister from 2006 to 2014 and one of the three leading candidates. In 2008, Maliki, with U.S.-British military assistance, eliminated al-Sadr’s control of Basra in the southeast.
Al-Sadr is also an opponent of the second candidate, Hadi al-Amiri, the head of extremist pro-Iranian militias. But he’s not an enemy, and Amiri came in second in the elections. A political alliance with him is possible and would protect al-Sadr from Iran’s wrath, but if this happens al-Sadr will have to surrender to his partner’s pro-Iranian line.
Preferring the Saudis and the Gulf states
Far more likely is an alliance with the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, whose relations with al-Sadr have never been smooth. This alliance might seem impossible for al-Sadr, but there have never been crises between them. His support for Abadi is eminently reasonable because like al-Sadr and Sistani, Abadi understands the necessity to balance the relationship with Iran through strategic ties with other forces.
Iran is such a powerful neighbor that even its limited involvement in Iraq is an imminent threat to Iraq’s ability to make independent political decisions. Tehran’s aspiration to turn Iraq into a passage zone for its military en route to Syria and Lebanon is only one example of such a threat.
On the other hand, al-Sadr can’t agree to the long-standing presence of the U.S. military in Iraq, even if Abadi, Sistani and many Sunnis want this to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State. He can ignore the presence of a few American military instructors, and he has never demanded severing relations with the United States or avoiding visits between Baghdad and Washington. In place of American influence and a direct presence in Iraq, al-Sadr will support the influence and presence of U.S. allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This is the only way Iraq will be able to offset Iranian influence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, left, and Muqtada al-Sadr meeting in Baghdad, May 20, 2018. Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office / AFP
Indeed, al-Sadr and Abadi have already visited the Gulf states. Nor does al-Sadr object to a significant UN presence to help negotiations at home with the Kurds and manage foreign humanitarian aid. Like his partners in the Iraqi patriotic trio, Sistani and Abadi, al-Sadr sees an independent Iraqi identity as the main basis for action.
This was seen in the joint election slate he formed with secular communists and Sunni politicians. Abadi, for his part, won in the most rebellious Sunni province, Al-Anbar, coming far ahead of Sunni candidates. He and al-Sadr are now perceived as the most “Iraqi” statesmen and as not corrupt.
Another possibility, albeit a little theoretical, is of course to return to the broader Shi’ite alliance that includes all four major Shi’ite parties. Even if Abadi leads it, this alliance would be very pro-Iranian, with a symbolic balance of relations with the Gulf states and the United States.
And what about Israel? There’s no chance that any Iraqi government will support ties with Israel in the foreseeable future. But al-Sadr, Sistani and Abadi aren’t happy about Iranian involvement in Syria after the defeat of the Islamic State or about Iran’s expectation that Iraq will grant Iran passage to Syria. All three also support the dismantling of the militias, most of which are pro-Iranian and undermine the state’s monopoly on the use of military force.
Therefore, as far as Israel is concerned, a government led by Abadi with the support of al-Sadr would be a poor man’s joy but still provide some consolation.
Amatzia Baram is a professor emeritus at the University of Haifa.
Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance beat expectations to come out on top in the 12 May vote, immediately met rival political leaders, ushering in what could be an extended period of discussions over forming the new government.
After talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Saturday, he said the meeting was intended to reassure Iraqis of his commitment to a government that speaks to everyone.
“Your government will be a caring and inclusive one. It will cover everyone in order to achieve reform and prosperity,” Sadr said, adding his “door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation”.
Although his remarks highlight an emerging political maturity, the once-firebrand cleric’s past could be a barrier to putting his kingmaker role to good use.
His election platform — orchestrated by an alliance that includes communists, nationalists and secular groups — pledged to fight corruption and end sectarian quotas in handing out government jobs, and called for the disbanding of all militias and reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni sects.
“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” says Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser on foreign affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Under a judgement by Iraq’s federal court, the prime minister comes from the post-election coalition with the most seats rather than from the pre-election alliance that wins the most seats.
So Sadr’s alliance could yet be shut out as other party leaders make deals.
Since no bloc has an absolute majority, the new government will have to be formed through consensus.
Iran has key allies such as powerful militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, who came second, as well as leading members of the Islamic Dawa party, to which Abadi and former prime Minister Nouri al-Maleki belong.
They can muster enough votes to secure the prime ministerial berth.
Iran has a genuine interest in a stable Iraq, with which it fought a ruinous war from 1980 to 1988.
For that reason, it may be prepared to encourage its allies to accept a role for Sadr and his supporters in the next government.
Many of the crucial details of nuclear policy are top secret, and the mundane terms used in official discussions tend to hide the apocalyptic consequences at stake.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Less than a decade after President Barack Obama called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the nine countries that possess them are engaged in a new nuclear-arms race. North Korea has most likely developed a hydrogen bomb, and its Hwasong-15 missiles may be large enough to transport not only a warhead but also decoys, chaff, and other countermeasures that would thwart America’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense anti-ballistic-missile system. India recently commissioned its second ballistic-missile submarine, launched an Agni-5 ballistic missile that can strike targets throughout Pakistan and China, and tested nuclear-capable BrahMos and Nirbhay cruise missiles. Pakistan now has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile, including low-yield warheads on Hatf-9 missiles for use against Indian troops and armored vehicles. Israel is expanding the range of its Jericho III ballistic missiles and deploying cruise missiles with nuclear weapons on submarines. France and the United Kingdom are developing replacements for their Vanguard and Triomphant ballistic-missile submarines. China is about to introduce Dongfeng-41 ballistic missiles that will be mounted on trucks, loaded with up to ten nuclear warheads, and capable of reaching anywhere in the United States. Russia is building a wide range of new missiles, bombers, and submarines that will carry nuclear weapons. The R-28 Sarmat missile, nicknamed Satan-2, will carry up to sixteen nuclear warheads—more than enough for a single missile to destroy every American city with a population larger than a million people. Russia plans to build forty to fifty of the Satan-2s. Three other countries—Iran, Japan, and South Korea—may soon try to obtain their own nuclear arsenals.
In the preface to the Nuclear Posture Review, released in February by the Trump Administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis expresses the new American point of view: “We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” That reality, according to the Pentagon, requires a full renovation of the Cold War nuclear triad—new intercontinental ballistic missiles, new long-range bombers, and new ballistic-missile submarines. It also requires new, low-yield “tactical” warheads and bombs, a category of weapons once considered so destabilizing that President George H. W. Bush removed almost all of them from active service, in 1991. The cost of rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal is projected to be more than a trillion dollars, spent over the course of thirty years.
The growing danger of the nuclear-arms race has failed to inspire much debate. Nuclear policy is no longer widely discussed in the media; the public has been told little about a subject of existential importance; and questions once passionately argued have been largely forgotten. Why do we have nuclear weapons? What they are for? How might they be used? And, at a time when a single American submarine can destroy the capital city of every country in the United Nations, how much is enough?
Instead, these questions are being addressed by a small group of policymakers. Many of the crucial details are top secret, and the mundane terms used in official discussions tend to hide the apocalyptic consequences at stake. “Mutual deterrence,” “flexible response,” “counterforce,” “countervalue,” “buffer distance,” “ladders of escalation,” “circular error probable,” “releasing commander,” “release other than attack,” “nuclear umbrellas,” “nuclear posture,” “force elements,” “yield,” “penetration aids”—none of these sound too alarming. But one term truly evokes its meaning. A “megadeath” is a unit of measurement in nuclear warfare. Ten megadeaths, for example, means that ten million people have been killed.
The targeting strategies of today’s nuclear powers stem from the aerial-bombing campaigns of the Second World War, when the distinction between hitting military assets and killing civilians disappeared. After the German bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica, and the Japanese attack on the Chinese city of Nanking, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the destruction of cities “inhuman barbarism” in a 1939 statement, demanding that combatants “under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.” The United States Army Air Forces tried to minimize civilian casualties during its attacks on Germany, flying missions in daylight, aiming at military and economic targets, and attempting to carry out “precision bombing.” But the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, under the direction of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Air Marshall Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, flew at night, aimed at residential areas, and tried to cause maximum devastation. Known as “de-housing,” the British policy sought to break the morale of the German people.
Unfavorable weather patterns over Japan and racism shifted the focus of American bombing there from military and economic targets to the civilian population. As the historian John Dower has noted, the war with Japan was a “war without mercy.” The Japanese used conventional, chemical, and biological weapons to kill as many as ten million to fifteen million people, mainly in China, and the United States did not hesitate to employ practices condemned a few years earlier as barbaric.
A great deal has been written about the ethics of President Harry Truman’s decision to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. Much less attention has been given to Roosevelt’s support for the use of firebombs against more than sixty Japanese cities. Those attacks subjected about a third of Japan’s population to aerial bombardment and killed perhaps a million civilians. More people died during the firebombing of Tokyo in March, 1945, than during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. According to a subsequent account by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, “Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any [other] time in the history of man.”
After the Second World War, the United States mothballed hundreds of ships, cut the number of military aircraft by more than two-thirds, reduced the size of the U.S. Army by almost ninety per cent, and halted the production of atomic bombs. The Cold War began at a time when American military forces in Europe were outnumbered roughly ten to one by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Unable to defend Western Europe with soldiers and tanks, the United States chose to deter a Soviet invasion by threatening to drop atomic bombs on Soviet cities. One of the early war plans, called TROJAN, listed seventy cities as targets. They would be struck by a hundred and thirty-three atomic bombs. Moscow would be hit by eight; Leningrad, by seven. Conservative estimates predicted that about seven million Soviet civilians would be killed or wounded. Threatening the mass slaughter of noncombatants had come to be seen as the only means of safeguarding freedom and preventing another world war.
The advent of hydrogen bombs seemed to endanger no less than the future of humanity. The new weapons could be made hundreds, if not thousands, of times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” opposed the development of the H-bomb, and, in 1951, he strongly advocated the development of low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapons that would be aimed at military targets. He hoped to minimize civilian casualties and limit the scale of a nuclear war. If the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe, Oppenheimer supported using tactical weapons against tanks, troops, and airfields. The idea of bringing “the battle back to the battlefield” was later endorsed by a young Harvard academic, Henry Kissinger, who imagined nuclear wars in which adversaries fired only tactical nuclear weapons at each other, obeyed rules of engagement, paused the fighting to negotiate, and agreed to spare cities from harm.
Confronted with a choice between tactical weapons and more powerful strategic weapons, the United States decided to build both. The Navy got nuclear depth charges, torpedoes, cruise missiles, gravity bombs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Army got nuclear artillery shells, land mines, anti-aircraft missiles, ground-to-ground missiles, and even the Davy Crockett, a recoilless rifle carried by infantrymen that shot a small nuclear projectile. The U.S. Special Forces got “backpack nukes” for sabotage missions behind enemy lines. And the Air Force got the most lethal nuclear weapons of all, mounted on cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and bombers.
American war plans relying on tactical weapons and those relying on strategic weapons were in many ways incompatible. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 specified that the President had the sole authority to order the use of a nuclear weapon. That authority was later embodied in America’s main nuclear-war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)—a highly-centralized scheme that launched nuclear weapons in an all-out attack on the Soviet Union and its allies. But a Soviet invasion of Western Europe might sideline the SIOP: tactical weapons would only be effective on the battlefield if they could be used immediately. The commander of an American infantry division, about to be overrun by the Red Army, might not have time to call the White House and wait for Presidential approval before authorizing the firing of his nuclear artillery shells and Davy Crocketts.
As a result, during the Eisenhower Administration, the authority to use nuclear weapons was secretly delegated to relatively low-level American officers assigned to NATO. They could decide when to go nuclear. Once the first tactical weapon detonated on a battlefield, the escalation of the conflict would be hard to control. Communications could prove impossible amid the nuclear blasts, and a Third World War might begin without the President’s knowledge or approval. By deploying large numbers of both tactical and strategic weapons, the United States embraced a nuclear decision-making process that was simultaneously centralized and decentralized—and bound to be chaotic in a crisis.
Throughout the Cold War, the proper size and composition of America’s nuclear arsenal was a continual source of debate, as each military service championed its own role in any conflict. During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that the United States should have enough nuclear weapons to fulfill two objectives: deter a Soviet attack and limit the damage of such an attack by destroying Soviet nuclear forces. If deterrence failed, at a bare minimum, regardless of the circumstances, McNamara believed that the United States should always be able to kill at least a quarter of the Soviet population and eliminate at least two-thirds of its industrial capacity. That level of “assured destruction,” he later told President Lyndon B. Johnson, “would certainly represent intolerable punishment to any industrialized nation and thus should serve as an effective deterrent.” But the nuclear-weapon requirements for “damage limitation” could become endless, as the Soviet Union expanded its nuclear arsenal and the number of military targets there multiplied.
The U.S. Air Force initially wanted ten thousand long-range ballistic missiles to attack Soviet nuclear forces, leadership bunkers, and other strategic targets, but later settled for a tenth of that number. The Army wanted a hundred and fifty-one thousand tactical nuclear weapons to hit battlefield targets, but eventually obtained about a twentieth of that number. The Navy argued that a few hundred nuclear warheads, mounted atop missiles in its submarines and aimed at Soviet cities, would keep the peace, guarantee deterrence, and render all those Army and Air Force weapons unnecessary. Although the Navy’s strategy of “minimum deterrence” would limit the size of America’s nuclear arsenal, it would focus almost entirely on slaughtering civilians.
The interservice rivalries and competing nuclear strategies led to a remarkable degree of overkill. America’s first nuclear-war plan approved by the joint chiefs, known as Halfmoon, had assumed that dropping fifty atomic bombs on the Soviet Union would devastate the country. By the late nineteen-eighties, the United States had more than twenty thousand nuclear weapons, and planned to use almost four hundred of them just to strike targets in Moscow. The Soviet Union built a similar mix of tactical and strategic forces to deter the United States—and had more than forty thousand nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War.
The world’s other nuclear powers harbored much smaller arsenals and simpler ambitions. In China, Chairman Mao was dismissive of America’s “small stack of atom bombs,” suggesting that his country’s huge population could survive any attack and wouldn’t be “cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail.” China pursued a policy of minimum deterrence, planned only to destroy American cities, and never had more than a few hundred nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom showed little interest in hitting Soviet military targets, and its nuclear-war plans increasingly focussed on “the Moscow criterion,” a threat to destroy the capital of the Soviet Union. France had a nuclear policy known as “deterrence of the strong by the weak,” operating a command structure independent of NATO and targeting Soviet cities. President Charles de Gaulle compared the thinking behind the strategy to that of a man walking in an ammunition dump with a cigarette lighter. “Of course, if he lights up, he’ll be the first to blow,” de Gaulle explained. “But he will also blow all those around.”
The Fourth Geneva Convention extends legal protection to civilians during wartime. The rules against deliberately harming noncombatants were expanded by two additional protocols, in 1977. “The civilian population . . . shall not be the object of attack,” Protocol II states. “Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.” Despite that admonition, today’s nuclear-targeting policies in many ways resemble medieval hostage-taking. The innocent are threatened with murder in order to preserve the peace.
Russia and the United States possess about ninety per cent of the world’s approximately fifteen thousand nuclear weapons, maintaining arsenals large and diverse enough to hit a variety of targets. The most recent Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States, issued by the Obama Administration, in 2016, is a veritable jobs program for weapons of mass destruction. It emphasizes the importance of destroying counterforce (military) targets rather than countervalue (civilian) targets, and it vows to “minimize collateral damage to civilian populations,” in keeping with international law. The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review advocates a strategy that sounds oddly elegant: “tailored deterrence.” Its objectives include preventing a nuclear attack on the United States, protecting American allies from attack, and, if deterrence fails, ending “any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms.”
Russia has also changed its nuclear strategy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union claimed that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. But Russia is no longer confident that its conventional forces are superior to those of NATO, and so it has embraced an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, raising the possibility of the use of tactical weapons against NATO troops. The strategy is based on a faith that low-yield nuclear blasts will impose “tailored” damage on NATO, de-escalate the conflict, and force a ceasefire. The strategy presumes that NATO won’t retaliate by using nuclear weapons, too. The change in Russian doctrine has prompted the Trump Administration to seek new low-yield, tactical weapons. The Administration believes that its new tactical weapons will deter the Russians from ever using their own—reversing a bipartisan consensus that for the past quarter century has regarded these weapons as gravely and needlessly dangerous.
At the height of the Cold War, the United States kept about seven thousand tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The utility of those weapons was always in doubt. During Carte Blanche, a war game conducted in 1955, three hundred and thirty-five NATO tactical weapons were used against invading Soviet tanks and troops, for the most part on battlefields in Germany. Robert McNamara later outlined the results: “It was estimated that between 1.5 and 1.7 million people would die and another 3.5 million would be wounded—more than five times the German civilian casualties in World War II—in the first two days.” Those estimates did not include deaths from illness, radiation poisoning, or Soviet nuclear weapons. Subsequent war games confirmed the findings of Carte Blanche: if NATO ever used tactical weapons to defend Germany, it would destroy Germany. The mere existence of tactical weapons could destabilize a crisis and make it end badly. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers didn’t know that the Soviet forces on the island and in the sea surrounding it not only had tactical weapons but also had the ability to use them without consulting Moscow. An American attack—contemplated for days at the White House and nearly set in motion—would have unwittingly led to a nuclear war.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the United States unilaterally removed all of its tactical weapons from South Korea and almost all of them from Europe. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, General Colin Powell, had trained in the employment of tactical nuclear weapons as a young officer and thought that they “had no place on a battlefield.” With the support of every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell persuaded Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and President George H. W. Bush to get rid of them, and over the years the size of NATO’s tactical nuclear stockpile fell by ninety-seven per cent.
Today, the United States keeps about two hundred tactical weapons at six NATO bases in Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands. The weapons are B-61 bombs designed to be carried by fighter planes. They have no assigned role in NATO’s war plans, and their military usefulness is “practically nil,” according to General James Cartwright, a former commander of the United States Strategic Command. The B-61 bombs have been retained as symbols of America’s commitment to the defense of NATO, despite concern that the weapons are vulnerable to theft by terrorists, sabotage, and attack, especially in Turkey. A few B-61s could fit in the bed of a pickup truck.
The Trump Administration is moving forward with plans to modernize the B-61 and would like to mount low-yield tactical warheads on submarine-based missiles. The advantage of basing tactical weapons on a submarine is that they will be hidden underwater—and therefore will be less likely to be stolen, attacked, or become the subjects of political protests. The disadvantage is that Russia will have no way of knowing whether a missile launched from a submarine is carrying a tactical warhead meant to destroy a tank battalion on the battlefield or a strategic warhead fired to destroy an underground leadership bunker in Moscow.
The glaring problem of how the President of the United States and the President of Russia might reliably communicate and negotiate during a limited nuclear war has never been resolved. The Moscow-Washington Direct Communications Link, known as the “hotline,” isn’t a voice link with matching red telephones, as portrayed in Hollywood thrillers. It’s a dedicated computer link that transmits encrypted e-mails between the Kremlin and the Pentagon. A recent photograph of the hotline is not reassuring: it looks like a computer terminal you might find in the business center at a Marriott hotel.
The return of tactical weapons is the most controversial aspect of Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review. The new policy assumes that American tactical weapons will deter the use of Russian tactical weapons, raising “the nuclear threshold” and making “nuclear employment less likely.” Sam Nunn, a former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services and a co-founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, has argued against that sort of thinking for more than forty years. He fears that the chance of accidents, miscalculations, and blunders with tactical weapons—as well as the pressure to “use them or lose them” in battle—greatly increase the risk of an all-out nuclear war. Like so many of the disagreements about nuclear strategy, this one cannot be settled with empirical evidence, and selecting the wrong policy could be catastrophic. As Nunn observed in 1974, after a tour of NATO’s tactical nuclear units, “Nobody has any experience in fighting nuclear wars, and nobody knows what would happen if one were to start.”
On the morning of August 6, 1945, Setsuko Thurlow, then thirteen years old, was preparing to decode messages on the second floor of the Army headquarters in Hiroshima. About twenty girls from her school worked beside her, and thousands of other middle schoolers were employed at patriotic tasks throughout the city as part of the Student Mobilization Program. Thurlow noticed a bright bluish-white flash outside the window at 8:15 A.M. She never saw the mushroom cloud; she was in it. She felt herself fly through the air, blacked out, and awoke pinned in the rubble of the collapsed building, unable to move. Lying there in silence and total darkness, she had a feeling of serenity. And then she heard the cries of classmates trapped nearby: “God, help me!,” “Mother, help me!” Someone touched her, removed the debris on top of her, and told her to crawl toward the light. She somehow made it out safely and realized that what was left of the headquarters was on fire. A half dozen or so other girls survived, but the rest were burned alive.
The smoke and dust in the air made the morning look like twilight. As Thurlow and a few classmates left the city center and walked toward the hills, they witnessed one grotesque scene after another: dead bodies; ghostly figures, naked and burned, wandering the streets; parents desperately searching for lost children. She reached an Army training ground in the foothills, about the size of two football fields. Every inch of ground was covered with wounded people begging for water. There seemed to be no doctors, no nurses, no medical help of any kind. Thurlow tore off strips of her clothing, dipped them in a nearby stream, and spent the day squeezing drops of water from them into the mouths of the sick and dying. At night, she sat on the hillside and watched Hiroshima burn.
Thurlow was reunited with her parents. But her sister and her sister’s four-year-old son died several days later. Her sister’s face had grown so blackened and swollen that she could only be recognized by her voice and her hairpin. Soldiers threw her body and that of her son into a ditch, poured gasoline on them, and set them on fire. Thurlow stood and watched, in a state of shock, without shedding a tear. Her favorite aunt and uncle, who lived in the suburbs outside Hiroshima and appeared completely unharmed, died from radiation poisoning a few weeks after the blast.
More than seven decades later, on the afternoon of December 10, 2017, I watched Thurlow accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). It was a remarkable moment, as she slowly walked to the podium with a cane, and the crowd in Oslo’s City Hall gave a standing ovation. After the bombing, Thurlow attended universities in Hiroshima and Lynchburg, Virginia. Later, she earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Toronto. She married a historian and settled in Canada. She began her anti-nuclear activism in 1954, and became a leading advocate for survivors of the atomic bombings, known as the hibakusha. A few years ago, I spent time with her in Stockholm, meeting with academics and legislators to discuss the nuclear threat. In her early eighties, she was sharp, passionate, tireless, and free of bitterness. “Today, I want you to feel in this hall the presence of all those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki . . . a great cloud of a quarter of a million souls,” Thurlow said in her Nobel speech. “Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us insure that their deaths were not in vain.”
The movement to abolish nuclear weapons began soon after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In January, 1946, the first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons,” and during the Cold War every American President supported that goal, with varying degrees of sincerity. On September 25, 1961, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, President Kennedy gave perhaps the most eloquent speech on behalf of abolition. “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness,” he said. “The risks inherent in disarmament pale in comparison to the risks inherent in an unlimited arms race.”
That week, Kennedy also secretly met with military advisers at the White House to discuss the pros and cons of launching a nuclear surprise attack on the Soviet Union. American and Soviet troops were confronting each other in Berlin, and a war between the superpowers seemed possible. Kennedy wanted to hear the benefits of striking first. The casualties that would result from the Single Integrated Operational Plan seemed excessive to him: an estimated two hundred and twenty million deaths in the Soviet Union and China (not including fatalities caused by fire). A Kennedy aide, Carl Kaysen, had come up with a surprise-attack plan, focussing solely on air bases and missile sites. He predicted that it would kill “less than 1,000,000, and probably not much more than 500,000.” The problem with the plan, he acknowledged, was that it might not eliminate all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons—which could prove unfortunate for cities like New York and Chicago. If the United States launched a surprise attack on the Soviets, the likely American death toll was somewhere between five million and thirteen million. But, if the Soviets attacked the United States first, perhaps a hundred million Americans would die. “In thermonuclear warfare,” Kaysen observed, “people are easy to kill.” Kennedy wrestled with the dilemma, decided not to launch a surprise attack, and made his feelings clear at the U.N.: “Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.”
The height of anti-nuclear sentiment in the United States occurred during the Reagan Administration, amid renewed tensions with the Soviet Union. An opinion poll in 1983 found that about half of the American people thought that they’d die in a nuclear war. The Nuclear Freeze Movement and worldwide anti-nuclear protests helped to transform Ronald Reagan from an ardent Cold Warrior into a nuclear abolitionist. At a 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Reagan and the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, nearly reached an agreement to get rid of all of their countries’ nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war receded, and arms-control agreements between the United States and Russia cut the number of nuclear weapons by about eighty per cent.
Republican Presidents had proved especially effective at reducing the nuclear threat. President Richard Nixon signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, committing the United States to seek “cessation of the nuclear arms rate at an early date and nuclear disarmament.” President George H. W. Bush cut the size of America’s nuclear arsenal by half. And President George W. Bush cut it in half again.
In 2007, the abolition movement was revived by an unlikely group of people: the leadership of the American national-security establishment. Two former Republican Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, joined two influential Democrats, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in writing an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, whose title aptly conveyed their goal clear: “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”
A new anti-nuclear group, Global Zero, was formed in 2008 by an international assortment of military, diplomatic, and political leaders. Both the Democratic and the Republican candidates for President that year, Barack Obama and John McCain, supported nuclear abolition. The revitalized movement reached its apogee on April 6, 2009, when Obama gave a speech about nuclear weapons in Prague’s Hradčany Square. He said that the United States had a moral responsibility, as the only country that has used nuclear weapons, to lead the international effort to abolish them. “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked,” Obama said. “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for, if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”
Nine years later, nuclear weapons have regained their sinister allure. North Korea has repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, producing elaborate videos that show the destruction of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. During a speech by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in March, computer animations projected on a large screen behind him showed Russian nuclear warheads descending over the state of Florida, perhaps aimed at Mar-a-Lago. And President Trump has delivered the sorts of nuclear threats that only Soviet leaders used to make, promising to unleash “fire and fury” and boasting about the size of his “button.” Nuclear weapons are once again being depicted as good, valuable things, the measure of national status and strength. The current arms race between the United States and Russia betrays the same assumptions as the last one: that new weapons will be better, and that technological innovations can overcome the nuclear threat. It’s a familiar delusion.
William Perry, who’s been involved in nuclear matters for more than half a century, believes that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was at any time during the Cold War.The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, unfortunately, agrees with him, and in January moved the hand of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. The Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union has been replaced by a multipolar nuclear competition, with far more volatile dynamics. Russia faces possible nuclear attacks by the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom. India must worry about China and Pakistan. China must deter the United States, India, and Russia. North Korea feels threatened by the United States, while some politicians in Japan and South Korea advocate developing their own nuclear weapons to counter those of North Korea. Nuclear terrorism poses a global threat. And everyone, it seems, hates the United States.
Moreover, the aftermath of a nuclear war may be even more dire than anything anticipated during the Cold War. In the nineteen-eighties, the astronomer Carl Sagan brought public attention to the danger of “nuclear winter,” a sudden and extreme form of climate change that would be precipitated by the dust and debris rising into the atmosphere as mushroom clouds from obliterated cities. The latest studies suggest that a relatively small nuclear exchange would have long-term effects across the globe. A war between India and Pakistan, involving a hundred atomic bombs like the kind dropped on Hiroshima, could send five million tons of dust into the atmosphere, shrink the ozone layer by as much as fifty per cent, drop worldwide temperatures to their lowest point in a thousand years, create worldwide famines, and cause more than a billion casualties. An all-out war between the United States and Russia would have atmospheric effects that are vastly worse.
The fact that launching a nuclear attack would be suicidal as well as genocidal hasn’t put an end to nuclear-war planning. Nor does the prospect of Armageddon loom as an effective deterrent. Some religious fanatics celebrate the slaughter of civilians and have no reluctance to die for their gods, while leaders like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have been willing to use banned chemical weapons and bring on the destruction of their own countries rather than surrender power. An eagerness to embrace death undermines the logic of nuclear deterrence, while a determination to kill may perversely uphold it. In a recent documentary, Putin said that his country would only use its nuclear weapons in retaliation—and that he wouldn’t hesitate to use them. “Why do we need a world,” he asked, “if Russia ceases to exist?”
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was formed in 2007. It seeks to reframe public attitudes toward nuclear weapons and gain ratification of an international treaty banning them. ICAN contends that the same rationale used to outlaw chemical weapons, biological weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions—their cruel, indiscriminate harm to civilians—should be applied to the deadliest weapons of all. According to the World Health Organization, no nation has the medical facilities or emergency-response capability to deal with the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in a city, let alone hundreds. After a nuclear blast, as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors would have to fend for themselves.
ICAN wants to stigmatize nuclear weapons, portraying them as inherently immoral and in violation of international law, not symbols of power or guarantors of national security. In July, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, sponsored by ICAN, was endorsed by a hundred and twenty-two of the hundred and ninety-three countries in the United Nations. The treaty will attain legal force after being signed and ratified by fifty. It forbids the testing, development, production, acquisition, manufacture, and possession of nuclear weapons. Last November, Pope Francis backed the treaty, altering the Catholic Church’s position on nuclear weapons; the Vatican had long opposed their use in war and advocated nuclear disarmament, but recognized their value in deterring war. Francis called nuclear weapons “senseless from even a tactical standpoint,” criticized their “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects,” and “firmly condemned” any possession of them.
A month later, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN—an impressive achievement for an organization with only three full-time employees and a part-time office temp. ICAN’s success has been driven by thousands of idealistic volunteers who are mainly in their twenties and thirties. During her Nobel lecture, Beatrice Fihn, the group’s executive director, a young and charismatic Swede, challenged the complacency of world leaders. “It is not irrational to think nuclear states can disarm,” she said. “It is a necessity.”
The Trump Administration and the eight other governments that have nuclear weapons vehemently disagree on a wide range of issues, but they are united in opposition to ICAN’s treaty. They argue that it is poorly conceived, unverifiable, unenforceable, unrealistic, and an invitation to nuclear blackmail. “This treaty will not make the world more peaceful, will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, and will not enhance any state’s security,” the State Department said in a statement after the group won the Nobel Peace Prize. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom declined to send a representative to the award ceremony, as a protest against the winner.
Thirty-five years after President Reagan promised an American missile-defense system that would somehow blast dozens of nuclear-warhead-tipped missiles from the skies, his dream remains unfulfilled. Pursuing it, at a cost of close to two hundred billion dollars, has only pushed other nations to modernize their nuclear arsenals. The exotic weapons recently announced by Putin—long-distance undersea drones with nuclear warheads, nuclear-powered cruise missiles that can circle the globe—aren’t necessary to evade a missile defense system. A hydrogen bomb hidden in a forty-foot sailboat can do that. Nuclear wars remain unwinnable, despite fantasies to the contrary. During the last two tests of American interceptors, the missile-defense system failed to destroy a single missile launched, even when it knew the trajectory.
The many grievances between the United States and Russia are serious. They include the expansion of NATO to the Russian border; American withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty; Russia’s invasion of Georgia, seizure of Crimea, and attack on eastern Ukraine; hostile propaganda; cyberwarfare; and meddling in elections. But they hardly justify killing billions of civilians. During a telephone call between Trump and Putin on March 20th, the two discussed resuming arms-control talks. If the two countries, which possess nine-tenths of the world’s nuclear weapons, can agree to make significant cuts in their arsenals, the other nuclear powers can be pressured to do the same. And if a meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, ever occurs, Kim should be told that having nuclear weapons, for a wide variety of reasons, makes the destruction of his country more likely.
The abolition of nuclear weapons will require unprecedented trust between nations, a strict inspection regime, and severe punishments against any country that cheats. Until the day when those things are possible, greatly reducing the number of nuclear weapons, taking ballistic missiles off of alert, and abandoning high-risk strategies will make the world a much safer place. None of that will happen until people are willing to confront the threat. “Yet in spite of the immeasurable importance of nuclear weapons, the world has declined, on the whole, to think about them very much,” Jonathan Schell wrote in “The Fate of the Earth,” which was published in The New Yorker thirty-six years ago. “This peculiar failure of response, in which hundreds of millions of people acknowledge the presence of an immediate, unremitting threat to their existence and to the existence of the world they live in—but do nothing about it . . . has itself been such a striking phenomenon that it has to be regarded as an extremely important part of the nuclear predicament.”
Since the publication of my book “Command and Control,” in 2013, I’ve gotten to know the young leadership of the nascent anti-nuclear movement, spoken at ICAN gatherings, joined the board of the Ploughshares Fund (a foundation dedicated to reducing the nuclear threat), and received financial support for some of my work from the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I have also met with many of the top officials at our nuclear-weapon laboratories, with the leadership of the National Nuclear Security Administration (the civilian agency in charge of our nuclear weapons), and with the commanding officers at the Air Force Global Strike Command, the unit responsible for our intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. What these disparate groups share is a strong and sincere desire to avoid a nuclear war. But they don’t agree about the best way to do that.
I hope the spirit now animating the demonstrations against gun violence will soon offer resistance to the greatest possible form of organized violence. As government officials in Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, Beijing, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tel Aviv, and Pyongyang discuss how to update and improve their arsenals, the madness at the heart of the whole enterprise must be loudly asserted. How much is enough? The only rational answer: even one nuclear weapon is one too many.
“Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea,” Mr. Trump said in a Twitter message. “We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!”
Later Friday morning, Mr. Trump told reporters that dialogue with North Korea continued.
“We are talking to them now,” he said before boarding the Marine One helicopter for a trip to Annapolis, Md. “They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it.”
Asked whether North Korea was playing games, Mr. Trump replied, “Everybody plays games.”
Secretary of State Jim Mattis, speaking Friday at the Pentagon with a visiting Danish defense official, said the latest round of comments may represent “possibly some good news on the Korea summit, where it may, if our diplomats can pull it off, may have it back on, even. That is a usual give and take, of trying to put together big summits.”
Mr. Mattis reiterated earlier comments diplomats are “in the lead and in charge” of the process and there has been no change in U.S. military posture.
The remarks marked yet another reversal in the tenor of rhetoric between the two countries as Messrs. Trump and Kim have moved haltingly toward a possible summit meeting to discuss long-term peace and denuclearization.
Mr. Trump unilaterally canceled the summit plans Thursday, citing “open hostility” from the North Korean regime, as his administration outlined plans to resume and accelerate a campaign of economic pressure against North Korea. He also warned Pyongyang that the U.S. holds military and nuclear superiority.
After canceling the planned summit, Mr. Trump also said he was open to reconsidering the decision.
In a restrained and cordial response to Mr. Trump on Friday, North Korea said it is still willing to meet.
“We express our willingness to sit down face-to-face with the U.S. and resolve issues anytime and in any format,” Kim Kye Gwan, a senior North Korea foreign ministry official and a longtime interlocutor with the U.S. on nuclear issues, said in a statement published by the North’s official state media.
Kim Kye Gwan is the same official whose harsh words last week against Mr. Bolton darkened the tone between the two adversaries.
The White House National Security Council held an afternoon meeting Thursday to discuss potential military action, new sanctions, and other paths forward, a White House official told The Wall Street Journal.
The administration is looking to impose dozens of new sanctions on North Korea early next week, one official briefed on the discussions said.
“If and when Kim Jong Un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday. “In the meantime, our very strong sanctions—by far the strongest sanctions ever imposed—and maximum-pressure campaign will continue.”