Monday, January 17, 2005

Remembering What We Were Trying to Do

[T]he most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do.
—Friedrich Nietzsche


Graham Allison quotes the German philosopher midway through his book, Nuclear Terrorism, making the point that the U.S. government has had great difficulty staying strategically focused on the war against terrorism. Iraq has proven a terrible distraction from what we need to do, but it is not the only symptom of human stupidity currently manifest in government policy.

For example, missile defense is currently the largest area of spending to prevent nuclear attack. Yet Graham persuasively argues that terrorists using unconventional weapons are our most likely and determined nuclear assailants. They are smart, methodical and have ample opportunity to secure portable bombs or to make them. Our borders admit thousands of illegal aliens, millions of dollars of illicit drugs and who knows how much else through uninspected shipping containers. Does anyone doubt that enemies capable of setting off daily roadside bombs almost at will in Iraq would be unable to park a nuclear-laden SUV in Midtown Manhattan? Graham quotes experts as saying it is not a matter of if, but when another attack occurs.

In the book, he paints verbal pictures of the potential destruction. He also maintains a Web site where you can simulate the impact area of a blast yourself. Just put in your ZIP code (or try 10001 for New York, 20500 for Washington, D.C., or 94108 for San Francisco) to visualize a new address for nothingness.

Graham argues we've lost sight of the original and achievable goal of preventing further catastrophic terror attacks on U.S. soil. Establishing democracy in Iraq, even if it eventually succeeds, is unlikely to deter Al Qaeda's appetite for spectacular and demoralizing attacks on symbolic U.S. targets. And trying to interdict terrorists requires a massive, cooperative international effort, with particular focus on relationships that allow us to penetrate the other side. The war certainly hasn't dome that.

The most workable strategy is to secure nuclear material that could be used in making bombs. Compared to ferreting out sleeper terrorist cells, this is something we know how to do. Compared to the number of new militants we seem to be creating daily throughout the Muslim world, the amounts and locations of fissible materials are finite. Yet Bush cut funding of a federal program to help secure nuclear stocks in the former Soviet Union until he was called on it, and instead of speeding these efforts after 9/11, he sent us into a country that wouldn't even rank in the top 20 of the world's potential nuclear trouble spots.

Graham proposes basing our nuclear terror prevention strategy on denying access to nuclear weapons or materials. This means all nations agreeing on:

• No Loose Nukes—Securing all weapons and materials to sufficient safety standards, the Ft. Knox "gold standard" of protection.
• No New Nascent Nukes—Preventing construction of new national facilities for enriching uranium or processing plutonium, something terrorists are unlikely to accomplish on their own.
• No New Nuclear Weapons States—In particular, North Korea.


Preventing a nuclear disaster would seem to be one of those highest common demoninator issues, where all countries and parties could agree and take action. Whether going after WMD was originally a cynical pretext or an earnest mistake hardly matters now. Iraq has made us forget what we as nation hoped Bush was really trying to do after 9/11. And the more we beat that dead horse, the harder it becomes to get back to the real task.

For more information and other perspectives, see the Nuclear Threat Initiative site and the online overview of National Geographic'sWeapons of Mass Destruction.

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