President Obama, do us all a favor. Fire Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Napolitano said on ABC News that the abortive SUV bombing in Times Square was a “one-off.” It wasn’t anything of the kind. Instead, as the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born American citizen, at JFK International Airport shows, it may well be a harbinger of the future. Homegrown, or at least naturalized, terrorism, using crude devices, has come to America. It’s always been a mystery why there haven’t been a spate of low-tech car and subway bombings in America that could terrorize the populace. Now that day appears to have arrived, or is arriving.
But Napolitano doesn’t seem to get it. It was the second time that she’s blundered. About the attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas outside Detroit, she declared, “the system worked.” No, it didn’t. The other thing that doesn’t seem to be working is Napolitano’s tenure at the Homeland Security Department.
The fact is that she is the weak link in Obama’s foreign policy team. The incident in Times Square threatens to overshadow the real progress that the White House has made in confronting the larger threat of nuclear weapons. To its credit, the administration built on its Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia by moving swiftly to claim the high ground at the United Nations conference on global nonproliferation. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, true to form, spluttered about American being the international bad guy because it dropped the big one on Hirsohima and Nagasaki, thereby ending World War II. But for the first time, America disclosed the size of its nuclear arsenal, which has gone from some 31,255 warheads to 5,113—still enough to blow up the world many times over, recalling Henry Kissinger’s famous comment in 1972, “What in God’s name is the meaning of nuclear superiority?” Back then, the Right was up in arms about an arms-control treaty—SALT I—with Moscow. Today, the Right is up in arms about an arms-control treaty—START—with Moscow.
But Obama may be a step ahead of his conservative critics. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, John Bolton seemed resigned to the prospect of Iran obtaining a bomb, absent a military strike by Israel:
We should recognize that an Israeli use of military force would be neither precipitate nor disproportionate, but only a last resort in anticipatory self-defense. Arab governments already understand that logic and largely share it themselves. Such a strike would advance both Israel's and America's security interests, and also those of the Arab states.
Nonetheless, the intellectual case for that strike must be better understood in advance by the American public and Congress in order to ensure a sympathetic reaction by Washington. Absent Israeli action, no one should base their future plans on anything except coping with a nuclear Iran.
But such pessimism may be premature and it’s not even clear that Israel, on its lonesome, could effectively denude Iran of its nuclear facilities, or that even a joint American-Israeli action could accomplish the job—absent using tactical nuclear weapons to penetrate Iranian bunkers, as well as direct strikes on the Iranian leadership and the Revolutionary Guard. For now, Obama is moving relentlessly to try and isolate Tehran by stripping it of its presumption to represent the underdog nations of the world and by ratcheting up sanctions. Ultimately, it will be Iran’s choice whether to build a bomb or simply to have a breakout capability. But Obama is trying to force it to have to choose.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il is traveling in China in an armored cavalcade to test the waters for more financial aid and moral support. He’s already got the bomb, but it doesn’t seem to helping him much. The value of nuclear weapons is going down for states. The only people really ready to use them are terrorists, which is why nonproliferation, more than ever, has become its own kind of security policy. It would be ironic if the Obama administration becomes more successful at stopping proliferation around the globe than at halting domestic attacks. So far, it’s been lucky.
But not every attack will be stymied by the incompetence of the attacker. Obama will earn points for apprehending Shahzad so promptly. But even bagging the main suspect can’t hide the fact that Napolitano must go. The administration has come out looking good not because of her efforts but despite them.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.