Still Mesmerized by WMDs

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration raised the specter of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons – as the gravest threat to America. In his “axis of evil” State of the Union Address in January 2002, President Bush said:

“States like these [North Korea, Iraq, and Iran], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

And he laid down a WMD marker that would ultimately lead to the invasion of Iraq a little more than a year later:

“Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.”

Fast forward to today. The more things change (Bush is out and Obama is in; instead of the Bush administration’s headlong rush to preemptive war – “The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack” – Obama is advocating a more measured approach to the use of military force – “While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction”), the more things stay the same. Speaking at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conference “Shaping the Agenda: American National Security in the 21st Century,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy (one of the founders of CNAS and one of several former CNASers now in the Obama administration) said, “The thing that keeps me up awake at night is the nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the possibility that a terrorist organization could either acquire a ready-made weapon or fabricate something, improvised that would nevertheless have a catastrophic effect for us.”

“Nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction” sounds a whole lot like “the crossroads of radicalism and technology” from the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. So the Obama administration is like déjà vu all over again.

First, the dreaded WMDs in and of themselves are not necessarily a catastrophic threat. A single nuclear weapon detonated in an American city would certainly be devastating. But it would not be an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it event. Or at least it shouldn’t be. After all, Japan survived after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, Japan rose from the ashes to become the second largest economy in the world. (The nuclear threat that was catastrophic was when the former Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at the United States – if launched, the result would have been the utter destruction of America.) A biological weapon in the form of a contagious pathogen (like smallpox) has the potential to kill a large number of people (perhaps even more than a nuclear weapon under certain circumstances, but over a period of time depending on how far and fast the virus spreads). But like a single nuke, even a smallpox-like epidemic would not be a world-ending event. And while chemical weapons are particularly nasty, they really aren’t in the same category as a nuclear or biological weapons. This doesn’t mean that the WMD threat should be dismissed or ignored (or that a nuclear, biological, or chemical terrorist attack would be inconsequential), but it does need to be put into some perspective rather than being treated as “the sky is falling.”

Second, terrorism is not an existential threat. Although terrorists may be able to cause great harm, they do not have the ability to destroy the United States. We need to stop talking and acting as if they do. Interestingly, when asked “What are the real existential threats that you’re focused on?”  Flournoy said, “There are many.” Oh really? The United States is faced with “many” existential threats? The last time I checked, the only real existential threat was the shrinking Russian nuclear arsenal. Even though Russia isn’t supposed to be the adversary that the former Soviet Union was, the U.S. and Russia still maintain a similar nuclear posture toward each other – both sides continue to target their strategic nuclear weapons against each other just as they did during the Cold War. So those warheads (estimated at over 3,000 currently) represent an existential threat. But beyond the Russian nuclear arsenal, no other country in the world has the capability to destroy the United States. China is estimated to have as many as 50 intercontinental range nuclear missiles, which would be able to inflict tremendous damage but not utterly obliterate the United States – plus the larger and more technologically advanced U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent against China or any other nuclear power.

Nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as an existential threat? There’s an old saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. So whom does the Obama administration think they’re fooling?

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.