Two Days with Charles Peña

Regular readers of probably often wonder who we columnists are in flesh and blood. Many of you like some/many/all of the articles we write, but you probably still wonder what we would be like as speakers. To put it bluntly, would you want to spend some of your speaker budget on this or that particular writer? Some of the best writers, as I have learned the hard way, are often some of the worst speakers. Last week, I had a chance to find out the speaking ability of one of my fellow regular columnists at, Charles Peña. Rather than keep my impressions to myself, I think it’s useful to share them with you. So here’s a review of the content and speaking style of Charles Peña. If you can’t stand the suspense, here’s the bottom line: he’s excellent on both.

Last Thursday, I hosted Chuck at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), where I am a professor, for a talk titled, “Are We Winning or Losing the War on Terrorism?” On Friday, our local chapter of Libertarians for Peace co-hosted Chuck for a talk, “Nuclear Terrorism: How Real is the Threat?,” at the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS). The other co-host was MIIS’s Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program (MonTREP).

In my introduction to his speech on the war on terrorism, I highlighted Chuck’s background and also read some of the quotes with which he started chapters in his latest book, Winning the Un-War. One of the quotes is from the start of his chapter on the Iraq war, “A Dangerous Distraction,” and it comes from Voltaire: “This is no time to make new enemies.”

Chuck’s style is to sit on a chair, with no notes, and speak almost conversationally for about 30 minutes. In his first speech, he told his audience that he didn’t have a prepared speech but, rather, would speak in a stream-of-consciousness style. In fact, it was much more organized that that because he knows his subject so well. Here are the major points he made in his speech on winning or losing the war on terrorism, many of which will be familiar to regular readers of the columns on this site.

First, he noted, the Global War on Terror (GWOT), is not a war – it is not an application of military force to defeat an enemy.

Then he posed two propositions and analyzed them. First: “We’re fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here.” For that to be true, he argued, two other things must be true. First, you have to fight the right people. So are we (by which he meant the U.S. government – see my “Who Is ‘We’?”) fighting the right people? The people behind the September 11 attacks were al-Qaeda. Chuck asked, “Have we really gone after al-Qaeda?” His answer was no. He said that the analogy to invading Iraq after September 11 would have been bombing Malaysia in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, it’s important that your actions not create more terrorists. Chuck pointed out that Rumsfeld himself had asked the question, “Are we, in our actions, creating more terrorists?” Chuck’s answer was yes. He pointed out that al-Qaeda had not existed in Iraq until after the U.S. government invaded Iraq. Moreover, Chuck noted, the odds that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would create more terrorists are very high. According to polling data, he said, a global majority of Muslims has come to believe that the U.S. government is trying to wipe out Islam. That creates a certain amount of hostility. And when the U.S. government kills people, each of those people typically has a sibling, a parent, a child, or a friend who is marginally more likely to become a terrorist. “That,” he said, “is collateral damage that we never account for.”

The second proposition Chuck addressed was the statement: “They [the terrorists] haven’t attacked us since 9/11.” This, he said, is true, but it’s important to look at the reason. Have we not been attacked because al-Qaeda can’t or because it doesn’t want to? He believes the latter explanation. He pointed out that al-Qaeda has drawn “us” into Iraq, which is what bin Laden wanted. Bin Laden can recruit more easily if he can point out – and he can – that the U.S. government has invaded two Islamic countries. Interestingly, though, Chuck didn’t specify bin Laden’s ultimate goal. His goal some years ago was to get U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, which has now been accomplished. What does he want now? It doesn’t seem clear, at least to me.

Chuck pointed out that there are one billion Muslims in the world. “Do we,” he asked, “really want to be in a war with one billion Muslims?” Chuck feared that getting into such a war would change the United States in a bad way: “We would have to kill hundreds of millions of them.”

Chuck ended by noting that the Department of Defense recognizes – and that even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recognized – that the U.S. government needs to win hearts and minds. The problem, he pointed out, is that the DoD’s recognition of this has led to a superficial solution: public diplomacy. High-level people in the Pentagon, he pointed out, are seriously asking, “How can we better use the Internet to communicate our message?” Chuck replied by asking another question: “Where is the senior Muslim spokesperson in the Bush administration?” He pointed out that the DoD’s thinking seems to be: “If we get better at using the Internet, they’ll understand us better when we bomb them.”

The question and answer period went about an hour. There were good questions, run-on unclear questions, and questions that were short speeches. Two things were striking, though. First, contrary to what you might expect if you have a negative stereotype of military officers, all of the questioners were respectful. Second, no one managed to seriously dent Chuck’s argument. People argued around the edges, pointing out, for example, that the U.S. is not the only country engaged in the GWOT. To this, Chuck responded that the U.S. is the main country involved and the country whose government has done most of the initiating.

His talk got good press coverage. The reporter from the local paper, the Monterey County Herald, played it as it was written – as conductor Arturo Toscanini used to sayreporting the speech accurately and in some detail. (The name “Peña” does not come across on the web – the “ñ” is missing, but it did in the print version.)

Chuck’s speech the next day at Monterey Institute of International Studies, “Nuclear Terrorism: How Real is the Threat?,” attracted people from MIIS and from the community in general. In it, Chuck broke down and refuted, step by step, the idea that we in the United States are threatened by nuclear terrorism from the Middle East.

First, he set the context by considering the amount of likely damage if a terrorist did get, and explode, a nuclear bomb here. The idea that a terrorist with a single nuclear device would destroy one country is simply false, he said. The world-ending event that we were worried about during the Cold War could have come about only with the launching by both the United States and the Soviet Union of hundreds or more nuclear weapons each. He pointed out that after the only use of the nuclear bomb in history, the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan survived and thrived.

Then he turned to the probability that anyone would want to use the bomb against the U.S. Let’s accept that Saddam Hussein hated the United States, he said. If he had had nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t he have given them to terrorists who could attack us so that he wouldn’t have been held responsible? There are two reasons. First, Chuck noted, the cost from start to finish of a successful program to develop a nuclear bomb is about $100 billion. (“What does the second one cost?” asked someone in the audience. Chuck didn’t address the issue directly; presumably the cost is much lower, but still very high.) Is it likely, he asked, that a government would pay that kind of money to develop a potent weapon that puts it in an elite club and then turn around and give it away?

(In a January 29 email, Peña wrote, “I may actually have overstated the cost to develop a nuclear weapon from scratch. The reality is that estimates vary all over the map. Also, my high cost estimate assumed that a country was trying to keep its nuclear program secret and was building a dispersed, buried, and deeply hardened program. It also assumed a full program with robust operational testing.”)

Second, he noted, would it make sense for a ruler to give such a potent weapon to someone over whom he didn’t have total control? The group he gave it to could turn around and threaten the ruler who gave it to them. If the Iranian government produced a bomb and gave it to Hezbollah, for example, Hezbollah could use the bomb to threaten the Iranian government. Also, the group he gave it to could get him in trouble by using it because nuclear forensics can be used to figure out the source of the bomb. You would have to be suicidal to do that, he argued. The U.S. government’s policy is that it reserves the right to retaliate using the full spectrum of military weapons. In other words, even if someone other than the producer of the bomb used it against the United States, the producer would be toast.

Why then, Chuck asked, if various governments don’t want the bomb to use it, do they want it? The answer is that they want it for self-defense. The Iranians can’t help but have noticed that Iraq, which lacked a nuclear bomb, was attacked and that North Korea, which has a few nuclear bombs, was not. Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, is quirky, Chuck said. But that doesn’t mean he’s irrational. He’s rational in the narrow sense that he wants to live and wants to hold on to power. Ditto with the mullahs. And, Chuck added, “It’s way too late to stop the Iranians from doing what they want to do. In fact, the mullahs in Tehran would be doing a disservice to their own people if they weren’t developing a nuclear bomb.”

Chuck hastened to add that he wasn’t saying there is no threat of nuclear terrorism. But, he said, “If terrorists are able to smuggle weapons into the United States, it will be sheer dumb luck, or good old-fashioned police work, if we ever discover it.” He pointed out that the “Millenium Terrorist” who tried to enter the United States from Canada in December 1999 was captured because customs officials found his behavior suspicious. The more-likely source of nuclear terrorism, he argued, is a “loose nuke” from the former Soviet Union since not all of those nuclear weapons have been accounted for. To handle that problem, he stated, it’s important for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia and some other now-independent Soviet republics in tracking them down, even if it means spending U.S. taxpayers’ money, as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program is intended to do.

The questions asked ranged from those that were critical of someone who would criticize the U.S. government’s thinking to those who seemed heartened that someone would calmly and methodically take apart the case for being afraid. In response to one question, Chuck said that the best thing the U.S. government could do to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation is to stop giving people incentives to want nuclear weapons. One person asked how we can get this information out there to voters who seem unwilling to learn about what’s going on. This questioner, without knowing it, was putting his finger on the “rational ignorance” problem that economists who study politics have identified. Because each of us is relatively unable to change policy, we don’t have a strong incentive to be informed. When we buy a car, by contrast, our choice is powerful – once we decide, we actually buy the car – and so we have a much stronger incentive to be informed. This rational ignorance is one major reason democracy can give us such horrible outcomes. That’s my answer, not Chuck’s. But he had a good answer, too: “The electorate wants to be informed after they realize that they should have been informed.” He pointed out that before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, many of his friends across the political spectrum believed that the president must have known important things he wasn’t telling us, things that would justify the invasion. Chuck said that he (Chuck) knew better and, as it turns out, he did.

Chuck Peña gave two powerful speeches and helped deepen the intellectual base for the antiwar movement on the Monterey Peninsula. His talks, especially the second one, gave me a lot of information that strengthens my belief in the wisdom of a non-interventionist foreign policy. They also reinforce some of the things I’ve believed for quite a while about the political system. Specifically, we should not automatically trust presidents or other politicians. In fact, based on my experience and my understanding of the political system, I think we should generally assume that they’re lying, or at least spinning, unless we have strong evidence to the contrary. Indeed, that is one of the strongest arguments for freedom – for, at most, small, weak governments and for strong people – don’t give the government much power because, as night follows day, they will abuse it.

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at