Three levels of uncertainty here. First we’d need to figure out who did it. AQ? Hezbollah? Or the dreaded Serbian white supremacists Hollywood has been warning us about all these years? Then we’d need to figure out where they got the bomb components from. The UN doesn’t have specimens from every extant nuclear program, per the Times, so finding a match for the atomic fingerprints isn’t a sure thing. Finally, we’d need to make a best guess about whether the material was stolen from someone’s poorly secured nuclear stockpile or whether it was willingly supplied by a state sponsor of terror. Retaliation against the latter is easy; retaliation against the former is iffier (and, in the case of a state like Russia or China that’s armed with nuclear ICBMs, impossible). Combine all that with post-Iraq skepticism about the reliability of our intel on enemy states’ WMD programs and you’ve got a humanitarian and ethical nightmare in the making. And/or one hell of a PC strategy game.
The Times thinks it’s unlikely we’d nuke anyone in response, partly because the attack would probably involve Russian bomb material and partly because they’re expecting a multiple-bomb scenario where we’d be scrambling for other countries’ cooperation in finding the other bombs before they went off. That’s nuts, of course. If a mushroom gets planted on U.S. soil, rest assured public opinion will see to it that a bigger mushroom gets planted somewhere else. If worse comes to worst and we really can’t ID the culprits or the sample — or even if we can identify them but it turns out they’re all from un-nukeable areas, e.g., a cell of Iraqis with a bomb from the Russian arsenal — then the feds will simply insist that AQ’s responsible, at which point planet earth will be bidding the Pakistani tribal areas a fond adieu. Then the next ethical nightmare would present itself: whether to retaliate covertly against Russia or whoever the state supplier is by handing their own insurgent enemies a little tit-for-tat package. That decision would probably turn on our assessment of whether the nuke here had been stolen or willingly supplied.
Like I say, awesome PC game. And I know just the company to design it.
In other news tonight, the UK’s International Institute of Strategic Studies says not only can AQ Khan’s illicit nuclear trafficking network be reconstituted given the number of members who are still at large, and not only has organized crime penetrated the nuclear black market, but apparently the CIA knew about the Khan network for years — and didn’t pay them enough attention.