Even a casual reading of current news reports and speeches about the threat from North Korea reveals a gathering bipartisan war party. The centrist and liberal leaders urge more adroit diplomatic efforts from the Bush administration, but the ten thousand pound bipartisan guerrilla in the room insists that if the North Koreans don't back down from their nuclear ambitions the U.S. will forcibly disarm them -- that is, start a second Korean war.
Graham Allison, director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration, is one prominent centrist leading the charge for confrontation with the North Koreans. In a 14 July 2003 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Europe, Allison states his case that nuclear terrorists are coming and that America must be prepared to take preventive action. Given the seriousness of the issue it is remarkable how flimsy his evidence and his reasoning are. It is worth closely reviewing this text, because it is likely we will hear versions of its lines again and again in the coming months.
Early in his op-ed Allison quotes Czech President Vaclav Klaus -- "a fundamental question: Was 9/11 an isolated act, or typical of phenomena the world will face in the first half of the 21st century?"
Allison provides his answer: "Beneath the headlines, deeper trendlines point to the latter. The relentless diffusion of deadly technologies allows progressively smaller groups to wreak increasingly greater destruction. Globalization has enhanced terrorists' ability to travel, communicate, and transport weapons. America's overwhelming dominance on all conventional battlefields drives rational adversaries to asymmetric responses like WMD terrorism."
Allison's answer is at best remotely related to the realities of 9/11 and is essentially theoretical. The increasingly common use of wide-body commercial aircraft was the only diffusion of technology relevant to the events of 9/11. The terrorists didn't need to transport weapons, they simply took advantage of dangerous vehicles routinely available in the vicinity of their targets. As for communications and coordination, this rather basic commando-type operation could have been equally well carried out long before the age of cell phones and electronic money transfers. And the statement that "America's overwhelming dominance on all conventional battlefields drives rational adversaries to asymmetric responses like WMD terrorism" is neither substantiated nor convincing as it stands.
Next Allison presents a what if: "In 1993, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist, Ramzi Yousef, tried to collapse the World Trade Center by exploding a truck filled with fertilizer-based explosives. Had that same truck carried an
elementary nuclear weapon, the blast would have." Yes, we all should
deeply impressed by the threat of a nuclear explosion. But, Ramzi Yousef didn't have a nuclear weapon and Allison can't tell us about any terrorist who has one.
Of course, it is possible that someday a motivated terrorist organization could get a nuclear weapon, since there are thousands in the world, including hundreds small enough to transport in an SUV. However, this threat has been around for longer than commercial jet airliners or SUVs. If my memory serves me right, several of the bad guys in rather old James Bond movies stole nukes and threatened civilization. And critics of nuclear weapons have been complaining from day one of the nuclear-age that nations building and storing thousands of bombs are bound to leak one to irresponsible actors sooner or later.
Allison goes on to say: "The status quo is fatally flawed. The U.N.-chartered, rule-based international security order that was accepted pre-9/11 leaves America or Europe vulnerable to a series of nuclear 9/11s. Such conditions are incompatible with our survival as free nations whose fundamental institutions and values are intact." But our "existential vulnerability" to nuclear weapons existed long before 9/11 and so the allusion to 9/11 in Allison's diatribe against a U.N.-chartered, rule-based international security order is really beside the point.
If Allison wishes to argue in favor of a unilateralist 'might makes right' international security order he is free to do so. On the other hand, it may be the very rule-based type system he disparages that has the best chance of permanently reducing the existential vulnerability humans have to nuclear weaponry. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with its requirement that nuclear powers pursue disarmament contains the germ of eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Such a disarmament program coupled with comprehensive international controls on fissile materials is ultimately the only regime that can reduce the nuclear threat toward zero. Allison's preferred nuclear class war between the nuclear haves and the nuclear not-yets is inherently unstable and prone to the very disaster he hopes to avoid.
Not only does Allison evoke the fear of 9/11 to lead us toward preventive war doctrine, but he vastly exaggerates the significance of a speculative nuclear terror incident. He says, "leav[ing] America or Europe vulnerable to a series of nuclear 9/11s. [is] incompatible with our survival as free nations whose fundamental institutions and values are intact." A nuclear terror incident would be a terrible thing, as we know from observing the
attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It would not, however, result in
destruction of our free nation and our fundamental institutions and values. It would take a nuclear war with a large nuclear power or the establishment of a dictatorial "war on terror" national security state to do that.
Which brings me back to the current target of the preventive war advocates -- North Korea. Allison points out, correctly I think, that the most likely source of a terrorist nuke would be Russia. Allison points to Pakistan next, and then says, "Next comes North Korea, the world's most promiscuous proliferator." He doesn't mention that history has shown that nation-states are loathe to share nuclear weapons. It is actually a very hard case to make that a reclusive North Korea prone to paranoia is likely to think it is a good idea to sell a nuclear weapon to Jihadists they don't
control. But Allison doesn't try to make the case. Instead he employs
cheap rhetorical device used so successfully by the Bush administration in making the case for war on Iraq -- use the name of your target enemy in successive sentences with the name of a currently feared enemy. Thus Allison's next sentence after "North Korea, the world's most promiscuous proliferator" begins, "Were al Qaeda terrorists to acquire a nuclear device."
By now we should expect this sort of threat-mongering from the extreme right-wingers occupying Cheney's and Rumsfeld's offices. It is another indicator of the enormity of the crisis we face as a nation that a Harvard centrist (one well-positioned to advise and serve a future Democratic
president) is so eager to join the right-wingers in spreading fear in support of a foolish and dangerous national security strategy.
Charles Knight is co-director of the Commonwealth Institute's Project on Defense Alternatives in Cambridge, MA