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.