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The Greatest Threat to Us All

1.

Charles Gibson of ABC News began the New Hampshire debate among the Democratic presidential candidates with a question on nuclear terrorism. Though not discussed in any detail in the campaign, he said, it remains “the greatest threat to the United States today.” He was right and, as some of the candidates noted, the threat has grown worse during the Bush administration as terrorist groups have thrived while efforts to lock up vulnerable nuclear materials have languished. The resulting discussion confirmed both the collapse of Bush’s security strategy and the need for clear conceptions to replace it.

Announced in Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, his 2002 State of the Union address, the Bush Doctrine held that the main danger to the United States came from the nexus of hostile regimes, terrorist groups, and nuclear weapons. One solution was preventive war. The Iraq invasion was the first attempt to carry out this radical strategy, but it was intended to be just the start of a series of regime changes in the Middle East, with Syria and Iran to follow.

The disastrous conflict in Iraq has long since shown how misguided the Bush Doctrine was; recently its deeper flaws have been exposed by the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran and by such events as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the intensification of the crisis in Pakistan. The new NIE—representing the unanimous opinion of all sixteen US intelligence agencies—concluded that Iran had ended its work on building a nuclear weapon in 2003. “Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005,” the agencies said. “We do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

But the report’s conclusions about the Iranian regime were perhaps the most telling. “Tehran’s decisions,” according to the NIE, “are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” The estimate pointed the way to a new US policy toward Iran that many, including this writer, have been urging:

Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.

At least for a while, the estimate undermined talk of military intervention in Iran.

The violence in Pakistan, meanwhile, has shown the extent of the failure of the Bush Doctrine by bringing the real, imminent security threats to the United States into stark relief. Osama bin Laden is widely thought to be hiding in Pakistan, a country with a substantial nuclear arsenal, strong Islamic fundamentalist influences in its military and intelligence services, and a military dictatorship seemingly in danger of collapse.1 In addition, the United States now faces: (1) a nuclear-armed North Korea; (2) the possibility of a Middle East with several nuclear states, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia among them; (3) the increasing danger of weapons from other countries falling into the hands of terrorist groups, while American-led programs to secure nuclear bomb materials around the world are being neglected; (4) an upsurge in the pursuit of civilian nuclear power by many countries that could put them within reach of nuclear weapons capacity; and (5) the possibility that flaws in US and other command and control systems—including those exposed last August by the unauthorized flight from North Dakota to Louisiana of a B-52 bomber armed with six nuclear bombs—could result in the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

2.

To understand the roots of this strategic failure, we have no more reliable guide than Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995). His excellent new book is entitled Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. The three together tell us much about how the US went from the atomic discoveries of the 1930s to the irrational situation in the 1980s in which a total of 65,000 nuclear weapons were held by the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the global arsenals have since been reduced to some 26,000 bombs, the United States and Russia continue to possess most of the world’s nuclear warheads, with the other seven nuclear nations together holding the remaining one thousand.

Arsenals of Folly examines the cold war arms race not by recounting treaty negotiations but by studying the psychology, physics, and politics of the era. Perhaps Rhodes’s most valuable contribution is his meticulous documentation of how American officials frequently and deliberately inflated their estimates of military threats facing the United States, beginning with the 1950 report to President Truman, known as NSC-68, that exaggerated Soviet military capabilities. As we know from misleading assessments about Iraq and now Iran, threat inflation has continued to this day.

America faces real threats that need no embellishment. But as Rhodes shows, politicians have often exaggerated threats for political advantage. “Fear is a very dangerous thing,” said British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin after World War I. “It is quite true that it may act as a deterrent in people’s minds against war, but it is much more likely to act to make them want to increase armaments….”

The manipulation of fear to promote programs that Americans would otherwise not support is different from honest disagreement over the scale of the threats. Rhodes shows how Paul Nitze, the principal author of the 1950 NSC report, intentionally exaggerated Soviet nuclear capacities and minimized those of the US in order to “bludgeon the mass mind of ‘government’”—as Nitze’s superior, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, admitted years later. Although the Soviet Union had lost at least 25 million people and half its industry in World War II, Nitze portrayed the USSR as a fanatical enemy that, within a few years, would threaten America with an estimated two hundred nuclear weapons. According to his report, the then American stockpile of 1,400 weapons would be insufficient to counter such a threat. Nitze’s report came at a time when international events, including the Korean War, seemed to validate this dark vision. In response, Truman quadrupled the defense budget and began a strategic program that would increase the US nuclear arsenal to some 20,000 thermonuclear bombs by 1960 and 32,000 by 1966.

The threats were real, but the aggressive American buildup created new dangers without diminishing the Soviet problem. When Richard Nixon began his policy of détente with the Soviets to reverse these trends, Nitze formed, with Albert Wohlsetter at the University of Chicago, the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy. It was the first of several private organizations that recruited young graduate students, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, with the explicit aim of subverting any plans to reduce the nuclear arsenal. “In doing so,” Rhodes writes, Nitze “unleashed a team of sorcerer’s apprentices whose trail of wreckage extends well into the present century.”

In 1976 George H.W. Bush, then the director of the CIA, set up a “Team B” of private analysts hand-picked by Nitze’s group with the blessing of Dick Cheney, then President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, and Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense. Professor Richard Pipes of Harvard directed the team, which in December of that year produced a wildly exaggerated portrait of a Soviet empire bent on world domination.

Although the newly elected president Jimmy Carter rejected the report and disbanded the group, Team B continued its activities by forming a new Committee on the Present Danger whose members included Norman Podhoretz, Edward Teller, William Casey, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. The committee popularized the notion that the United States had a “window of vulnerability” in its nuclear arsenal because, they claimed, the Soviet Union could eliminate in a first strike all of America’s nuclear weapons. In fact it would have been impossible for the Soviets to do so, since nuclear submarines and aircraft equipped with weapons would have escaped any land attack; the submarines were invulnerable and their ability to launch a counterattack would have maintained an effective deterrent if the Soviets were foolish enough to consider a first strike.

The historian Anne Cahn has shown that every specific claim about the Soviet arsenal in the Team B report was wrong, including the assertion that there was a super-secret Soviet facility that was developing a nuclear-powered laser beam (later shown to be a rocket engine test site).2 Nonetheless the claims of Team B contributed to the image of Carter as a weak president unwilling to stand up to Soviet threats; this helped secure Reagan’s victory in the 1980 election and the arms buildup that followed.

Subsequent groups have copied the Team B strategy. In 1998, the Republican-controlled Congress established the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, led by Donald Rumsfeld. By consistently applying worst-case assumptions, the Rumsfeld Commission warned that Iran and North Korea could hit the United States with missiles within five years. The assessment was simply wrong. North Korea does not have, and is unlikely to have anytime soon, a nuclear missile that can hit the United States; Iran is even further away from such a capacity. Indeed, the overall threat from ballistic missiles has declined, with fewer nations and fewer missiles threatening the United States today. The report, however, was successful in persuading Congress to boost spending on antimissile systems from $3 billion annually to $11 billion in 2007.

In 2000, the Rumsfeld Commission on space weapons again used a series of worst-case assumptions to conclude that the country faced an imminent “space Pearl Harbor.” That report led to the current US strategy to deploy new weapons—such as orbiting interceptors to target other nations’ satellites and missiles—for total US domination of outer space. In fact, no nation credibly threatens the vast US satellite system.

Under President George W. Bush, the practice of exaggerating threats to the United States in order to justify aggressive military policies has been taken to alarming extremes. The Bush administration came into office in 2001 openly scornful of the nuclear policies of its predecessors, Republican and Democratic. The problem, it said, was not controlling and eliminating existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons but dealing with the evil regimes that are trying to acquire them. The answer was not negotiated agreements but the forceful overthrow of those regimes. Rumsfeld and his aides put forward a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in 2002 that made bald claims about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs and helped stampede the nation to war.

As with Team B, the report was wrong in every single assertion. Saddam Hussein had abandoned his nuclear and chemical weapons programs in 1991 and his biological weapons program in 1994. The leader of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, concluded in January 2004 that the regime had been in a “death spiral,” growing weaker, not stronger. For the US, the result of this rush to invade Iraq has been one of the most devastating declines in security, power, and prestige in American history.

  1. 1

    Al-Qaeda’s efforts to obtain nuclear expertise from Pakistan are well documented. In the weeks before the September 11 attacks, two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists had several meetings with bin Laden in Afghanistan to discuss nuclear weapons technology. See Kamran Khan and Molly Moore, “2 Nuclear Experts Briefed Bin Laden, Pakistanis Say,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2001.

  2. 2

    See Anne Hessing Cahn, Killing Detente: The Right Attacks the CIA (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

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