When Bill Clinton had to be scared

Being prepared to press the red button ensures that it doesn’t have to be pressed

So Bill Clinton has revealed that “Indian officials spoke of knowing roughly how many nuclear bombs the Pakistanis possessed, from which they calculated that a doomsday nuclear volley would kill 300 [million] to 500 million Indians while annihilating all 120 million Pakistanis. The Indians would thus claim ‘victory'”. This is from Taylor Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, and is presumably in the context of the 1999 Kargil war. (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony)

In her report, DNA‘s Uttara Chowdhury leads readers to thinking that this should anger the Indian government. “New Delhi,” she writes, “is likely to be furious with the observation, which portrays it as a government willing to play fast and loose with its citizens lives to notch up a bizarre win against Pakistan.”

Why should New Delhi be furious when Mr Clinton’s words show that Indian officials ensured that the psychological aspect of nuclear deterrence was maintained during the crisis? For a country with a no-first use policy, it is imperative that there is no ambiguity in the minds of adversaries and observers with regard to its commitment to a retaliatory strike. If Mr Clinton was convinced that the red button would be pressed in retaliation, regardless—and perhaps more importantly, in spite of knowledge of the damage assessments—New Delhi should be pleased. Given his subsequent actions, this might have well been the case.

It is unclear who made these statements to the Clinton administration—whether they were made by government officials or by interlocutors outside the government. Also, the damage assessment of 300 to 500 million Indian casualties appears overstated (given the state of Pakistan’s arsenal in 1999, at least)—it is unclear if this was a case of Indian officials deliberately overstating it to signal how much damage India was willing to accept; or indeed, a case of Mr Clinton exaggerating the numbers to show how abominable the Indian position was. (See an earlier post on MUD or mutually unacceptable destruction).

The paradox of nuclear deterrence requires India to credibly demonstrate the unflinching resolve to cause mindless destruction in order to forestall it. To see this as playing “fast and loose” to notch a “bizarre win” is an uninformed, superficial and incorrect way to look at this issue.

In fact, these revelations highlight an important aspect germane to the current public discussion over the minimum credible deterrent. Much of it revolves around the adequacy of the nuclear arsenal—despite broad consensus that the garden-variety 20kT fission warheads are deployed on multiple platforms. The crucial question is: can Indian officials continue to convince the Clintons of the world, like they did in 1999? The business of convincing cannot be left to serendipity—it must be institutionalised.

10 thoughts on “When Bill Clinton had to be scared”

  1. it may not be a bad idea to pass a parliamentary resolution authorizing the prime minister to try and wipe out the entire population of a country which launches a nuclear attack on india. irrespective of whether that enemy attack succeeds in causing destruction in india or is repulsed by our forces.

  2. @Balaji, I disagree with you. Rather talking about the things, it only needs to informed via action. I am sure there are enough intelligence leaks within Indian organization. Only emailing to two-three level top ranking officers that Indian plan is to do so will make sure that enemy gets the message via their intelligence (ISI)

    Right now is not to engage with the enemy. Obama’s US is not going to do anything for India’s interest and so rather than playing dumb, we should move away from them and wait for 4 years. India, I think should befriend China and show US has more to lose by fighting against Indian interests.

    Also, for MRCA, I think we should go for Eurofighters – they are cool planes and best in the race, rather than giving money to US companies for buying lower profiled F18. With Eurofighters, we gain strategically that is to befriend UK and Germany and I am sure US will get its message.

  3. Agree broadly with your perspective.

    However, it’s one thing to assert a steely resolve to wipe out a nation that first attacks India with nuclear weapons and kills tens or hundreds of millions of our citizens, it’s quite another to call it “victory”. Such an apocalyptic outcome is hardly about victory or defeat, it’s about survival or annihilation. I’m surprised someone in Government used this term, because that is a sign not of cold realism but insanity.

    US has stood ready to wipe out the world for decades as a deterrent. We should have no shame in asserting a limited version of the same posture, as we would only attack the aggressor nation. Just don’t call this undesirable circumstance victory.

    Best regards

  4. @PrimaryRed

    Good point. But we do not know who said these things, or whether the word victory was even used by the Indian side.

    It is possible that the ‘bad cop’ used it, while the good cop was playing good cop. Or it is Clinton who used the word

  5. If one believes what Clinton says, India sure had some *good* interlocutors!


    The business of convincing cannot be left to serendipity—it must be institutionalised

    May be also something like the (mythical?) Perimeter system of the Russians?

  6. > The paradox of nuclear deterrence requires India to credibly demonstrate the unflinching resolve to cause mindless destruction in order to forestall it.

    Very well said. The fear that you can and *will* rain nuclear terror is critical.
    In that sense, india has squandered away her conventional superiority by showing, again and again, her unwillingness to use it even one bit.

    Given our usual supine nature, however, the Clinton statement — and its timing — should also be seen in the larger US context. We now have a non-proliferation ayatollah in power in DC. Clinton’s statement has that strong ‘india may be immature for nukes — look they were a step away from a nuclear winter’ tone to it.
    Good ammo to wave a pen and NPT in front of india.

  7. The Chinese are supremely pragmatic in this context.

    Mao Tse-Tung shocked Nehru with his views on nuclear war. Mao later said, “Nehru believed that if an atomic war was fought, the whole of mankind would be annihilated. I said that if the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world could become socialist.”

    Mao said to the Eight CCP Congress in 1958: “Do not be alarmed either if there should be war … Eliminating half the population occurred several times in China’s history. The fifty million population in the time of Emperor Wu in the Han dynasty was reduced to ten million by the time of the Three Kingdoms, the Qin dynasties, and the North and South dynasties.”

  8. The idea of winning a nuclear war at the cost of millions of lives was not beyond American politicians and military officials either. In Minds at War, Steven Kull writes:

    [Secretary of Defence] McNamara worked out precisely what percentage of the Soviet population and industrial capacity the United States would need to be able to destroy to constitute unacceptable damage. The percentages ranged from 20 percent to 33 percent of the population and from 50 percent to 75 percent of the industrial capacity.

    Quoting from the same book, General Tommy Powers of the Strategic Air Command in the 50s and 60s, is said to have burst out during a briefing session,

    Why do you want us to restrain ourselves? … Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is kill the bastards! … Look. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!

    Apropos Atanu Dey’s comment on Mao, the idea of preserving a political system at the expense of massive civilian losses was also not foreign to American thinking. Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia) remarked in a floor debate on missile defenses in 1968, “[in the event of a nuclear war] If we have to start over again with another Adam and Eve, then I want them to be Americans and not Russians.” (Congressional Record, v. 114, p. 29,175).

    Here’s another on winning a nuclear war from the former President George H. W. Bush during an interview with Robert Scheer:

    Scheer: How do you win a nuclear exchange?
    Bush: You have a survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have a capacity that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict on you. That’s the way you can have a winner, and the Soviets’ planning is based on the ugly concept of a winner in a nuclear exchange.
    Scheer: Do you mean 5 percent would survive? Two percent?
    Bush: More than that — if everybody fired everything he had, you’d have more than that survive.

    For a rational outcome in the nuclear context, however one might define it, there ought to be a convincing commitment to be irrational in the future. No one can claim to be holier than the other when dealing with this paradox.

  9. The quoted figure “300 to 500 million” Indians killed is not rational at all. 500 million is approx half of the total Indian population. To achieve that kind of death rate – the pakistanis would have to completely destroy at least 40 to 50% of the total Indian land area.

    The pakistanis do not have that number of nuke weapons with commensurate magnitude power.

    Either the statement is a misqoute by an Indian – or a deliberate exaggeration by americans to emphasize some kind of “madness” that prevails in this region to the world.

  10. @Pankaj

    DOnt think one needs to cover 40-50% of the land area to achieve that.. The population of the 20 largest cities in India (2001 census) comes to nearly 65 million people and as per my rough calculations, its not even 1% of India’s land area. Your hypothesis assumes that population is evenly spread out through the country – but there are vast swathes of land which are either uninhabited (forests, mountains for example) or are very sparsley populated.

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