Jeff at Caerdroia and Wretchard at The Belmont Club offer some provocative speculation on the logic of escalation applied to a nuclearized war on terror. What, they ask, would or should be the response if, at some point in the not too distant future, Islamist terrorists succeed in obliterating an American city?
Wretchard argues that, once the threshold has been passed, the logic of escalation would almost inevitably lead to the complete destruction of the Islamic world. In his view the key question would be at what point we, the West, accepted the inevitable, and concluded the conflict on terms most favorable to ourselves. Jeff envisions us first applying massive retaliation against the most radical Islamist powers, then waiting to see how the second, third, and fourth tier Islamic nations reacted.
Though many readers might consider such speculations to be, in a word, insane, or, in a different word, MAD, they may be useful at least to the extent that they open a space for us to think about the supposedly unthinkable.
While Wretchard envisions the logic of escalation as unitary and inexorable, Jeff is more open to assessing this prospect of nuclear war, even nuclear war with terrorists, in more Clausewitzian terms - that is, as a continuation of politics by other means, and therefore susceptible to a political analysis. In a way the question comes down to whether or not the nuclear annihilation of an American city would mean the end of politics.
I believe the war on terror remains political, and would remain so even under the extreme circumstances envisioned by these other writers. I also see no reason to accept Wretchard's assumptions, however interesting they may be, when they lead him to imagine Islamic terrorists launching repeated nuclear attacks in an attempt to "carry out the execution" of condemned America, even while America is busily obliterating the Islamic world on the inexorable way to a final solution.
The aims of the Islamists may seem fantastical and absurd to us, but they remain political and strategic: Their primary objectives focus on the Islamic world itself and their position within it against whatever forces of relative moderation. For the longer term vis-a-vis the West, they believe themselves directed to seek the conversion or enslavement of non-Muslims, not genocide for its own sake.
Whatever a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda chose for their first "demonstration," it would be for the sake of delivering or reinforcing political demands and advancing a power-political agenda, not merely for the sake of murdering infidels - just as the 9/11 attacks had political purposes that went far beyond decreasing the infidel population by several thousand. If in the future Al Qaeda overreaches even further, then the US might respond with massive retaliation of some kind, but, even then, our aims would very likely remain political up to and including the point where we believed the survival of the nation was in jeopardy.