March Madness

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Common Dreams

March Madness

Check your calendar. It's that time of year full of anticipation, excitement, familiar swagger and sure step. Boys will become men. Reputations will be made and lost. Some will just be glad to make an appearance in the contest. Those who didn't make the final cut say, "Wait until next year." No, I'm not talking about that March Madness, a 64-game three-week frenzy of all things college basketball, otherwise known as the NCAA basketball tournament. That contest earns a special pullout section in the newspaper with flow charts to track all 64 teams and regional outcomes. It is chock full of team member's height and weight stats, coach and player assessment of other team's abilities, lots of posturing and gamesmanship, a somewhat confusing ratings percentage index (RPI) to supplement all the published ranking polls, and a funny and informative narrative from talented sports columnists who delight us with their quips and quotes.

There's quite a fan base of support for NCAA-style March Madness. And the press rewards that fan base with a lot of detailed coverage, at least on the men's side.

The other March Madness I'm referring to does not have a special pullout section in the newspaper, endless hours of television coverage, or sport bottle caps imprinted with your favorite college teams. In the overall life-and-death scheme of things, it may however be a touch more important than if Duke repeats. In this March Madness, the contest revolves around a much smaller field of nuclear contenders but with new teams just itching to play. Seeded first is the United States. The #1 seed has decided to shift its thinking on its "no first strike" nuclear policy, given the "new reality" and "new threats"--generic code phrases for anything occurring on or after September 11. The nuclear March madness was leaked from a classified Pentagon document called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), although Noah Adams and Lake Wobegon Days are completely unrelated. Neither does the NCAA have anything to do with NPR, although maybe it should so that more of us would pay attention.

NPR outlines the possibility of the #1 seed United States in this tournament using nuclear weapons against top seeds (and permanent UN Security Council members) China and Russia, Axis of Evil conference members Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, and longtime Rogue State conference members Syria and Libya. Being the #1 seed has obvious advantages: (1) you are a heavy favorite to 'win' the contest, which in this case does not mean a trophy, bragging rights, sports revenue, and recruiting advantages, but the anticipated option to keep playing the game with no doomsday final buzzer; (2) or you can put the other 'teams' on notice that you might just be crazy enough to decide to use nuclear weapons 'surgically' and 'strategically' if the calls don't go your way in Israel, in a contest between China and Taiwan, in a strike of South Korea by North Korea, and in any attack by Saddam Hussein's Iraq on the Middle East.

In any sports contest, it's common to get inside the other guy's head to make him lose his rhythm. The number one seed nuclear planners may be doing just that by leaking the announcement of the use of limited nuclear first strike capability such as 'bunker-busting' nuclear weapons for cave-dwellers and terrorist groups that just might go for broke and launch their own hail Mary nuclear throw. It's hard to know for sure what's going on inside the nuclear planners' heads because the Pentagon's NPR is classified information while sports pages are not.

At one time there was a Cold War tournament with two conferences, the capitalists vs. communists, both seeded first in the global nuclear contest. Their nuclear posture, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), was premised on a double murder/murder-suicide disincentive. A first nuclear strike would unleash an equally devastating nuclear response. No one would be left standing to cut down the net or high five one's teammates. Politicos called this game 'non-zero-sum' where the fate of the players in this game was shared.

Now the nuclear posturing has shifted. The lone #1 seed is contemplating a zero-sum contest. The team seeded first can elect to use nuclear weapons or just contemplate their usage to send 'a strong signal' to others who might want to use them. Should they do so, the results will be devastating. It's one thing when there are only two teams playing. The rules are very clear, and those teams have kill ratios to wreak global havoc. It's quite another contest altogether when there are at least 10-15 recognized nuclear teams and dozens of other unrecognized 'illegitimate' teams seeking power and influence using their own rules or none at all.

The NPR illustrates that the United States wants something beyond a home court advantage in nuclear supremacy. In this new mind war on terrorism and rogue states, the message is simple: if you are just thinking about coming after vital U.S. interests, then the response will be as irrational and vindictive as the US portrays its enemies to be. President Nixon promoted a 'madman theory' in the Cold War days that portrayed US leaders as somewhat crazy and unpredictable so no one would dare take on our extraordinary destructive force. September 11 made the madman a lot madder. In a new version of the madman theory, the Nuclear Posture Review says that nuclear weapons "could be employed against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack" or "in the event of surprising military developments," a reference to the events of September 11. The US nuclear strategy and its faith-based deterrence policy is now a bygone of pre-Sept. 11 days. Were it my wish that this other March Madness tournament would garner as much detailed analysis from the media and as strong a fan base of support for less maddening (constructive, nonviolent, multilateral, policing) ways to respond to threats to world peace. But then I supposed that sounds crazy, doesn't it?

Nancy Snow

Nancy Snow is a Senior Visiting Research Professor and Abe Fellow at Keio University in Tokyo working on a book about Japan’s image in the world since 3/11. Her forthcoming book is Truth is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow's Speeches in the Kennedy Years (Miniver Press). She can be reached at

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