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By Hans A. Bethe and Henry Bethe

Hans A. Bethe, one of the fathers of the atomic age, is professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University. He won the Nobel prize in physics in 1967. Henry Bethe, his son, is a retired banker.

-- U.S. President George W. Bush has called for a war against terrorism. But by seeking an identifiable opponent in Iraq, he is mistakenly reverting to the practices of the Cold War era that will fail in today's world.

For 50 years we kept a MAD peace: Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD formed the basis for military strategy and diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union had sufficient nuclear capacity and the delivery capability to do us enormous harm. We would have been able to reciprocate. The threat was a deliverable tit for tat, ranging from specific targets to cities, to each other's nation. The leaders of each side had responsibility for the safety and well being of a well-defined geographic area and political group. The mutual threat kept us from each other's throats. MAD successfully ensured that rational leaders avoided all-out war.

We are faced now with a different type of opponent. Al Qaeda, like all terrorist organizations, has no cities, no territory, no landmarks. It has an ideology but no responsibility for either a geographic area or a political entity. It has no convenient retaliatory targets. It has only an objective: to do harm to the United States. It is not possible to aim a smart bomb at an intention.

The United States is finding it hard to pursue this evanescent foe. On the other hand, Al Qaeda also cannot assure our physical destruction. Even if the terrorists obtain ''weapons of mass destruction,'' the damage and the toll will be finite, limited. Their arsenals would be small and not, as the Soviet Union's was, sufficient to kill most of us many times over. We hope there will be no more victims of this madness. The prospect of the use of atomic or biological weapons in the United States is daunting. It is terrifying. But just as Japan has survived the bombing of Hiroshima, we would survive as a nation.

It is hard to change. Our leaders have spent 50 years relying on MAD in their diplomacy and in their military strategy. MAD needs an opponent, an enemy with sufficient capability to act as a brake on rhetoric and actions. We have run out of such opponents.

Perhaps that is why President Bush and his advisors are so insistent on Saddam Hussein's having or being about to have these terrible weapons. They need an opponent, and that opponent has to be in position to do significant damage. Perhaps the need for an identifiable enemy explains why they want to turn from the war against terrorism to a war against Iraq. Saddam did not fly planes into the World Trade Center. Our enemy is the terrorists, not any particular country.

In this war there is no Mutually Assured Destruction. The Cold War ways of diplomacy and military strategy will not work in this new fight.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/19/02)