You know how sometimes someone in the meeting comes off as the “smartest person in the room?” On occasion, it is the truth. Which is often the case with the newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
Recently, and randomly, I came across an old Foreign Affairs article that he co-wrote with (past) CIA Director John Deutch and (future) 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow.
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. But today’s terrorists, be they international cults like Aum Shinrikyo or individual nihilists like the Unabomber, act on a greater variety of motives than ever before. More ominously, terrorists may gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices, germ dispensers, poison gas weapons, and even computer viruses. Also new is the world’s dependence on a nearly invisible and fragile network for distributing energy and information. Long part of the Hollywood and Tom Clancy repertory of nightmarish scenarios, catastrophic terrorism has moved from far-fetched horror to a contingency that could happen next month. Although the United States still takes conventional terrorism seriously, as demonstrated by the response to the attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, it is not yet prepared for the new threat of catastrophic terrorism.
American military superiority on the conventional battlefield pushes its adversaries toward unconventional alternatives. The United States has already destroyed one facility in Sudan in its attempt to target chemical weapons. Russia, storehouse of tens of thousands of weapons and material to make tens of thousands more, may be descending into turmoil. Meanwhile, the combination of new technology and lethal force has made biological weapons at least as deadly as chemical and nuclear alternatives. Technology is more accessible, and society is more vulnerable. Elaborate international networks have developed among organized criminals, drug traffickers, arms dealers, and money launderers, creating an infrastructure for catastrophic terrorism around the world.
The bombings in East Africa killed hundreds. A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.
The danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against America and its allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It is a national security problem that deserves the kind of attention the Defense Department devotes to threats of military nuclear attack or regional aggression. The first obstacle to imagination is resignation. The prospects may seem so dreadful that some officials despair of doing anything useful. Some are fatalistic, as if contemplating the possibility of a supernova. Many thinkers reacted the same way at the dawn of the nuclear age, expecting doom to strike at any hour and disavowing any further interest in deterrence as a hopeless venture. But as with nuclear deterrence, the good news is that more can be done.
The 9/11 attack, though conventional, did accomplish exactly what the authors’ warned of in stating:
“Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.”
Unfortunately, their conclusions I feel have still gone unheeded. Especially as we as a nation get wound up about an insurgent force highly proficient in propaganda but yet still lacking in strategic strength. Though it would still be wise to ask, can we do something better with the hindsight of 14 years?
Catastrophic terrorism poses an eminent threat to America’s future. But the United States can fight back only if it sets the right goals. In 1940 and 1941, the U.S. government pondered what kind of forces it would need to wage a global war. The answers went so far beyond the imagination that wry smiles and shaking heads in Washington offices greeted the planning papers as they made their rounds. The Cold War saw a similar pattern of disbelief. The notion of an intelligence system founded on photographic surveillance from the upper atmosphere or outer space seemed outrageously far-fetched in 1954, when the U-2 program was born. The films and cameras alone seemed an overwhelming hurdle. A few years later the U-2s were flying; six years later satellites were in place. Similar stories could be told about the remarkable history of intercontinental missile guidance or the fast deployment of more than a half-million troops and thousands of armored vehicles to the Persian Gulf in 1991 and 1992. America can meet new challenges, but it must first imagine success. Only then can it organize itself to attain it.
You can read the entire article here.