The Greatest Threat to Us All


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…

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