John Mearsheimer is not especially worried about terrorism. It is only “a minor threat”. The attacks of September 11th may have been spectacular, but “did not cripple the United States.” Besides, another attack of that magnitude is “highly unlikely”. Even “nuclear terrorism, in short, is not a serious threat.” Mearsheimer writes that “significant obstacles” face any organization seeking to procure fissile material and weaponize it. Finally, he does not even break a sweat when considering that an unstable nuclear regime may lose control of its arsenal. Yes, he admits, “Political turmoil in a nuclear-armed state could in theory allow terrorists to grab a loose nuclear weapon, but the United States already has detailed plans to deal with that highly unlikely contingency.” This blithe confidence in the marginal relevance of terrorism is essential to Mearsheimer’s main argument, that “what happens [in Egypt and Syria] is of little importance for American security”; furthermore, US exaggeration of these countries’ significance reflects a fearful American mindset that detects dire threats “in every nook and cranny of the globe.” Yet if one pulls on the loose threads in Mearsheimer’s stance on terrorism, the logic of his essay begins to unravel.
It is striking that Prof. Mearsheimer’s comfort with loose nukes rests on his faith in “detailed” US planning for intervention in failed or failing states, which he tends to dismiss as futile. Perhaps he imagines that securing such weapons will entail nothing more than a series of commando raids, like the one that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Yet what if a failed state, say Pakistan in 2020, has dozens or hundreds of nuclear caches to secure? The US mission may entail a sizable intervention, including a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, perhaps with a measure of the “social engineering” that Mearsheimer dreads. The value of being prepared for such a campaign is not something he can accept. Previously, he has described American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan not just as failures, but as “unwinnable.” This absolutism may be rhetorical excess, but Mearsheimer has argued that favorable conditions for counterinsurgency are so rare that it is practically impossible for the benefits to outweigh the costs.