Blink of an Eye
by William S. Cohen
(Tom Doherty Associates Book, 368 pages, $24.99)
Former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen has published this, his second novel, and struck terrifying gold. Blink of an Eye compellingly presents a nightmare nuclear scenario that has kept national security professionals and senior political leadership awake nights since September 11, 2001: a nuclear bomb detonates, destroys an American city, and the government is having trouble figuring out who did it. Cohen brings to his novel the intimate knowledge of a longtime Washington insider and veteran of countless high-level meetings, negotiations, and political crises.
His tale wends its way through several surprise turns, as befits a novel. It also stretches the circumstances under which a detonation can occur, but not so far as to take for granted the reader's suspension of disbelief. The plot weaves in militant Muslims, right-wing domestic extremists, Israel's fabled Mossad intelligence service, a presidential election, and a widespread panic that follows the havoc caused by the bomb.
If anything, the novel understates the potential horrors after a nuclear event. Panic surely would be worldwide and extreme. A 21st century nuclear attack would take place in a global media environment vastly different from that of 1945. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were newspaper headlines, and aired on radio broadcasts and movie theater newsreels. Today's media are vastly more diverse and pervasive: global satellite television coverage, billions with access to the Internet, cell phones, computers, and more esoteric social media like Twitter and Facebook.
Now imagine that, unlike in Cohen's book, authorities are unable to determine who set off the bomb. Nuclear forensics is an inexact discipline. We rely on data collected from atmospheric tests to tell us whether a bomb is of U.S., Russian, British, French or Chinese origin. None of these states is likely to intentionally sell or give the bomb to terrorist groups. The risks of confrontation with the U.S. are too great for Russia and China to contemplate, and Britain and France are our allies. Israel is not known to have tested a bomb, but its security is such that it is perhaps the least likely source of a stolen bomb. India could only be a source if a bomb is stolen, as it has not helped others proliferate and avoids trafficking with terrorists.
Which leaves "the usual suspect": rogue states -- such as Pakistan and North Korea -- plus Iran, if it joins the nuclear club. North Korea is a rogue proliferator, whose leadership is capable of virtually anything. Pakistan is a militantly Islamic society with intense hostility directed at the U.S. by many leaders and much of the populace. Iran is a revolutionary state whose Islamist leadership ardently desires to destroy both the Great (America) and Little (Israel) Satans, and is seized of millenarian religious belief in Armageddon.
The author sums up why deterrence of Iran cannot be counted upon by reference to the Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union:
There's no such thing as rationalizing with the irrational…. The reason the cold war stayed cold was the existence of mutual fear. When two countries share the same nightmare, war is unlikely. But when one country's nightmare is the other country's dream, well.… It's clear, once they get nuclear weapons they'll blackmail us into submission or actually use them. You can't threaten them because they are eager to die. Somebody has to stop them.
Pakistani and North Korean nuclear tests have all been conducted underground, as likely an Iranian bomb would be tested. This makes obtaining a nuclear forensic signature of a bomb's characteristics hard, if not impossible to obtain. Should we be unable to verify the source, our options are stark. Asking obviously gets one nowhere. We could warn each suspect state that if it does not comply by giving us full access to determine the signature of its nuclear weapons, we would treat it as guilty. But there is no international legal precedent supporting a state's legal right to tell several states that they are guilty until proven innocent, and then if unable to identify the aggressor attack all for want of cooperation.
If enough Americans are dead the law might not matter. But our civilizational values would. Are we really able to carry out a threat to incinerate multiple countries to be sure we get the guilty party? In doing so we would be massacring millions living in one or more countries whose governments did nothing. It is hard to see any President summoning the will to do so, as it goes directly against our core societal DNA.
Cohen's book is solid, suspenseful, entertaining and informative. But in choosing a scenario well short of the nightmare world that could easily follow a nuclear event, he offers us just a tantalizing glimpse of the potential mega-catastrophes that could befall us.