National Security and Terrorism

Peter Beinart raised a firestorm with his contentious article "A Fighting Faith". Beinart's article, and the response to it, sent the discussion down a dead end street. Beinart's challenge to liberals was based on the assumption that Bush and the neo-cons had engaged the necessary "re-education" of our national security priorities that 9/11 demanded and liberals had not.

The core issue neglected by Beinart's shrill challenge to liberalism was why a liberal robust military response to terrorism was necessary. By framing the issue the way he did, Beinart sent liberals scurrying down the contradictory path of defining a liberal military interventionism that was also doomed to failure. The implied parenthetical of Beinart's challenge was that the neo-conservative approach to fighting terrorism has been an abysmal failure. It doesn't matter whether a military response to terrorism is conservative or military. Bush's military approach to combating terrorism neglects domestic national security.

By definition there are two aspects to the problem of terrorism; (1) domestic national security and (2) combating terrorism overseas. The Iraq war is an utter, complete and total failure on both counts. The goal is not a conservative or a liberal approach to combating terrorism. The goal is a rational approach to combating terrorism. James Fallows has given us the outline of a rational approach to fighting terrorism on the domestic front, in the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly,  Success Without Victory. (subscription required)

America won the Cold War because Americans embraced a set of strategic principles and pursued them steadily, decade after decade. Here's the outline of a "containment" strategy for the age of terror

Fallows bases his analysis on the work of a RAND corporation scholar named Brian Michael Jenkins, who has been focused on the problem since he made this 1978 prediction:

"We are approaching an age in which national governments may no longer monopolize the instruments of major destruction," he said. "The instruments of warfare once possessed only by armies will be available to gangs. It will not be possible to satisfy the real or imagined grievances of all the little groups that will be capable of large-scale disruption and destruction, or to defend everyone against them ... In the future, warfare--highly destructive warfare--may be waged without the necessity for armies and governments, by people with little to lose."

Fallows addresses the failure of Bush's domestic policy:

Homeland Security: Keep Your Shoes On

Screening lines at airports are perhaps the most familiar reminder of post-9/11 security. They also exemplify what's wrong with the current approach. Many of the routines and demands are silly, eroding rather than building confidence in the security regime of which they are part. "You can't go through an airport line without thinking 'This is dumb,'" says Graham Allison, the author of the recent Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

Daniel Prieto, at the Belfer Center for science and International Affairs, identifies the waste and inefficiency of Bush's policy. The Transportation Security Administration spends more than $4 billion a year on airport security and the airlines spend another $3.8 billion.  The airlines losses for last year were $4 billion.

that the roughly $4 billion now going strictly toward airline passengers could make Americans safer if it were applied more broadly in transportation--reinforcing bridges, establishing escape routes from tunnels, installing call boxes, mounting environmental sensors, screening more cargo. All these efforts combined now get less than $300 million a year, which will drop to $50 million next year.

Overall, according to Veronique de Rugy's calculations, Wyoming has received $35.30 per capita in homeland-security grants and North Dakota $28.70, versus $4.70 for California and $5.10 for New York.
Nothing about this is considered and serious. "U.S. Homeland Security policy has embraced the false idea that all American communities are likely targets of terrorism," Benjamin Friedman wrote. "It is time to stop indulging the expensive myth that risks are geographically distributed, time to abandon feel-good security, and time to accept reality: some risk is inevitable, some of us should be more afraid than others, but our fear is what our enemies intend."  ...  

We could also eliminate the ID checks at parking garages and the sign-in sheets at office buildings that many private firms have instituted to seem "secure." Each time I'm forced to sign one of these sheets, I look at the previous few pages. Usually someone has had the bravado to sign in as "Jack D. Ripper" or "Mullah Omar." The government could also start issuing visas at something like the pre-9/11 level. The drastic cutback in visas has reduced the flow of foreign students to American universities and of skilled foreign workers to American industries, while it may or may not have done anything to reduce the flow of future terrorists.

What would a rational policy to combat terrorism by providing domestic security look like?

The essential concepts are these:

The country should undertake a systematic vulnerability study, something a number of states and industries have done piecemeal. The federal government has shirked an overall effort, in part because it would lead to awkward questions about why the money now goes where it does.

The country should prevent attacks where it can; but everywhere else it should concentrate on rebound capacity, so that when defenses break down, as they inevitably will, the damage can be contained. Improved public-health services are near the top of most "rebound" lists. They would be indispensable in any future biological attack, and helpful in all other circumstances.

Repairs to the nation's physical infrastructure, especially to its already shaky electrical power grid, are next on the priority list. And the country should recognize that certain potential targets--chemical plants in particular--are in private rather than public hands. The federal government now assumes that market forces will lead those industries to make the appropriate investments in security. But as Daniel Prieto points out, that assumption is unrealistic; as with pollution control, no company will want to go first unless it knows its competitors will have to follow.

Soldiers, police officers, and firefighters take risks to defend things we value. Our leaders explain the purpose of their sacrifice. They should also explain the importance of citizens' facing risks in order to preserve normal civic life.

The War of Ideas

Fallows points to The Federation of American Scientists' have posted a 102 page internal report from the Pentagon's own Defense Science Board,  in November about how America was doing in the global war of ideas. The conclusion: "But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended." I won't belabor either the profound cultural and religious misunderstandings or the faulty approach the Bush administration has taken.

What would a better approach look like--one based on how a Muslim audience would react?

But an improved military approach, while necessary, is sufficient neither to protect American territory nor to project American values in the right way. For both tasks the United States needs to come to a clearer understanding of the movement it is fighting and of the Islamic public that will either shelter terrorists or impede them. Fortunately, this is where the academic action is. Seemingly every day there is a conference somewhere in the world on the social, religious, economic, and geographic sources of terrorist movements, or on the titanic struggle between modernizing and radicalizing forces within Islam.

Incredibly, Bush's failure in Iraq is a failure to frame the issue from a Muslim perspective. The think tanks that have been so successful at framing the Iraq war for  domestic American consumption, have completely failed to even consider how America's WOT is perceived by Muslims in the Middle East.
For instance, in much of today's Muslim world "justice" is a more compelling ideal than individual "liberty.""This really is a war of narratives in a battlefield of interpretation," Marc Sageman says. "We need to promote a positive vision to substitute for the vision of violence. And that vision has to be justice. It is no accident that these groups are always calling themselves 'The Party of Justice' and so on. In the time of the Suez Canal the United States stood for 'justice' against the Brits and French, and we were the toast of the Middle East. We need to be pushing a vision of a fair and just world, with us in harmony with the rest of the world, as opposed to at war with the rest of the world."   

Why has America had a harder time lately pushing its vision of justice? The two major obstacles are its need for foreign oil, which forces it to coddle regimes it would otherwise blast as anti-democratic, and its failure even to feign interest in the Palestinians' hardships in their dispute with Israel. The need for oil drenches America in hypocrisy, and America's distance from the Palestinians is a barrier to even being heard in Arab discussions.

Loose Nukes:Do This First

Twice when I was interviewing authorities for this article, I heard a phrase that made me stop to be sure I had caught the words correctly. Once was when I was speaking with Stephen Van Evera, in his office at MIT. The other time was when I was speaking with Steven Miller, at Harvard. The words Van Evera used were "the worst failure of government in modern times." Miller's were only slightly different: "the single largest public-policy failure in recent memory." They were referring to the same fact: that thirteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was in no apparent hurry to be sure that the 30,000 nuclear warheads in the Soviet arsenal had been safely locked away.

Homeland security is at the moment largely a waste of money. The war of ideas is a battle we have not seriously begun to fight. The loose-nukes problem is different: it is the one aspect of the terrorist threat that could kill large numbers of us. And it is the problem whose outcome is most clearly within America's power to control. If the United States acts quickly enough, it can reduce essentially to zero the chance that one of its cities will be vaporized. If it is too slow, it will raise that chance to a near certainty.

The good news is that nuclear terrorism could conceivably be prevented, and the strategy for preventing it is utterly straightforward. It is based on one crucial difference between the nuclear threat and all other forms of terrorism: not that the weapons are so much more destructive but that they are so much harder to obtain. If terrorists cannot get the material--highly enriched uranium, plutonium, or existing bombs--from the limited number of countries that produce them, the problem goes away. For the moment, no finished bomb or fissile material is known to have entered the hands of terrorist groups. The highest priority for national defense is ensuring that this remains so.

The single worst threat to America's future, then, has the clearest solution. The best-known plans have three big themes in common: a drastic emergency campaign to bring Soviet "loose nukes" under control, which mainly means money to hire former Soviet scientists for the task; rigid supervision of all existing fissile material, which, as Ashton Carter, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, has put it, should be locked up and treated "as if it were already a bomb"; and diplomatic, economic, and (when necessary) military measures to keep any new fissile material from being produced.

The gulf between any of these urgent, commonsense plans and existing U.S. policy is enormous. No one thinks the Clinton administration was spending enough on the "cooperative threat-reduction" program for controlling the former Soviet arsenal. The Bush administration is spending less.

Another tool for discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  ...
Suppose the United States viewed the loose-nukes project as the equivalent of the race to the moon in the 1960s, or the search for a polio cure in the 1950s. Suppose it had to succeed, and as fast as possible. What might that cost? According to Graham Allison, the total might be as high as $30 billion over three years. America now spends that much every six months in Iraq. It spent more than that during the first term of the Bush administration on a missile-defense plan that, even if it worked perfectly, would not do any good for another ten years. By then even one loose nuke could make all other plans moot. This is the place to start.

Fallows wraps up his analysis from the same point Beinart begins his. Fallows however, disagrees that Bush and the neo-conservatives have addressed the necessary "re-education" about U.S. power, and about the new totalitarian threat from the Muslim world" and wisely adjusted to post 9/11 realities:

In 1949 everything changed for America when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. By that time U.S. political leaders had already developed concepts to govern a very long struggle against Soviet communism. Harry Truman, George Kennan, George Marshall, and their colleagues are heroes now because what they explained to the public through the late 1940s and early 1950s proved to be so wise.

Could today's leaders look like heroes in fifty years? Yes--if they similarly laid the groundwork for a long, principled, and sustainable struggle. A Truman would tell us that loose nuclear weapons are the real emergency of this moment, and that instead of pussyfooting around we should control them right away. A Kennan would explain the sources of Muslim extremist behavior and how our actions could encourage or retard it. A Marshall would point out how gravely we left ourselves exposed through our reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf.

And the Harry Truman who strolled on Washington sidewalks even after assassins tried to shoot him could explain something else: that a courageous, confident, open society is a goal in itself. When we face dangers on our own, character, faith, and family make us brave. When we face them collectively, political leadership does--or does not.


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