Thursday, August 04, 2005

SERIOUSNESS WATCH J. Peter Scoblic's article "Moral Hazard" is locked behind a New Republic subscription firewall. But it's worth quoting at length.

The short version? The Bush administration isn't serious:

The war on terrorism is, at some level, a war of ideas: To the extent that we can substitute democracy and liberal values for autocracy and Islamic fundamentalism, we will probably improve our security--and we should therefore try to do so.

But freedom--as Richard Haass, Bush's former director of policy planning at the State Department, has written--is not a doctrine. That is, the spread of freedom cannot be our guiding principle in the war on terrorism, because the spread of freedom cannot protect us from all terrorist threats, particularly the immediate ones. In fact, in the short term, democratization appears to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, terrorism.

The case in point is, of course, Iraq, which, according to the National Intelligence Council, now serves as a training and recruitment ground for the next generation of jihadists--its popularly elected government notwithstanding. Even nations that successfully transition to democracy can breed terrorism: As former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has written, "In Indonesia, which just achieved its third democratic transfer of power since Suharto's rule ended in 1998, the jihadist movement is growing stronger, as it is in other Asian democracies.

In Algeria, free elections in 1990 and 1991 resulted in victories for those who advocated a jihadist theocracy." Even if the president's assumptions about the pacifying effects of representative government are correct, democratization is a long-term process, taking years, decades, even centuries. Bush doesn't dispute this; in his second inaugural address, he said that spreading freedom would be the "work of generations."

Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time--not when the next terrorist attack could be nuclear. According to a recent survey conducted by Senator Richard Lugar, proliferation experts believe on average there is about a 30 percent chance of a successful nuclear attack somewhere in the world within the next ten years.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has put the odds of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil by 2010 at 50 percent. Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, has put the odds at better than half within ten years. Unlike an attack with a conventional weapon--or even a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon--a nuclear bomb has the potential to radically alter the U.S. economic and political landscape.

Although we think of the September 11 attacks as having "changed everything," they did not. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, but the political and economic fabric of the country was not torn apart. Clearly, our foreign policy underwent a massive shift, but day-to-day life in the United States proceeds much as it did on September 10, 2001.

That would not be the case if the next terrorist attack were nuclear. A ten-kiloton bomb detonated in a U.S. city would immediately kill tens of thousands--perhaps hundreds of thousands--of people. A plume of fallout would waft from the site of the explosion, sickening and killing thousands more and contaminating 3,000 square miles of land. Hundreds of thousands of people would need to be evacuated.

The infrastructure damage would be enormous: Everything within a half-mile radius of the explosion would be flattened; beyond that, buildings still standing would be mere shells, their fa├žades stripped. The immediate economic damage--the damage from the "hole in the ground," as one expert put it to me--could total $500 billion.

But the greater cost would come from disruption to the national and international economies. Combined with the blow to U.S. productivity from lives lost, the cost of an attack would total trillions of dollars. No other terrorist incident could do that much damage. Indeed, of 15 scenarios discussed in a 2004 report by the Homeland Security Council--including terrorist attacks with chemical, biological, and radiological weapons--only a nuclear attack is certain to require years of recovery time.

This leads to a simple conclusion: In the near term, the war on terrorism--whatever else it is--should first be a war on nuclear terrorism.

It has become all too clear, however, that this is a war the Bush administration is spectacularly ill-equipped to fight, handicapped as it is by a worldview that revolves around our enemies' intentions rather than their capabilities. Democratization is a strategy to change the behavior of our enemies by draining them of hatred. But we cannot fully erase hatred, and Bush's "hope and compassion" are thin defenses against a nuclear weapon.

A better tack would be to strip our enemies of the ability to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place--a difficult goal, but an achievable one, given that there is a finite amount of the fissile material needed to make nuclear weapons and that, by themselves, terrorists can't produce more. Alas, the very ideology that has led Bush to embrace democratization has also mired him in a nonproliferation strategy that emphasizes regime change while eschewing diplomacy.

The administration is consumed by the idea that the character of states is of primary importance to U.S. security. This ideology, this conservative fixation, explains why, for much of Bush's presidency, his administration focused on Iraq to the exclusion of North Korea and Iran. It explains why Bush stood by while Pyongyang moved to produce enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons.

It even explains why he has acted so slowly in securing the hundreds of tons of vulnerable nuclear material in Russia. Indeed, an examination of the Bush administration's ideology shows that, not only has it made some bad decisions for U.S. security, but that it is constitutionally incapable of making the right ones.


Preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear material, however, will require more than securing existing fissile stockpiles--it will require revamping the NPT, which allows only five signatories (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain) to possess nuclear weapons but allows the rest to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium for peaceful purposes, such as generating energy.

This provision is the back door that Iran and North Korea have exploited to advance their nuclear programs, and a politically diverse constituency--from Bush to Kofi Annan--agrees that the NPT needs to be strengthened or supplemented to prevent further abuse. Doing so, however, will take considerable political capital, because the 183 members of the treaty that are barred from having nuclear weapons must be convinced that they should consent to further restrictions on their nuclear activities.

Unfortunately, not only does the United States not have the political capital to effectively make that case, it's not even clear the Bush team would spend it if it did.


When Bush decided that the United States needed to stop countries from legally developing nuclear technology that they could turn around and use in a weapons program, it was hardly surprising that he proposed voluntary restrictions instead of legally binding measures.

Rather than trying to revamp the NPT or negotiate a new set of rules governing nuclear technology, he merely suggested that members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)--a loose consortium of 45 states who are supposed to coordinate their exports of atomic technology--more tightly restrict their sales. It wasn't a bad suggestion, just an inadequate one.

After all, the NSG does not incorporate all nuclear suppliers--including countries like Pakistan that are known nuclear exporters--and compliance with its rules is optional, meaning that members can violate them with impunity, as Russia has done. Indeed, the Bush administration itself threatened to seriously undercut the NSG's authority last week when it agreed to export nuclear technology to India, one of the few states that doesn't belong to the NPT.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.