Security First Forum: Time to Set Priorities
Amitai Etzioni has performed a great service in focusing attention on the nuclear threat. He might have added that this stems not only from the dreadful nature of a nuclear attack, but also the likelihood that the U.S. response would be so savage as to overturn the entire existing international order and spread revolution across the Muslim world. He is also entirely correct in his recommendation that the U.S. take every possible step to reduce the extent of poorly secured stocks of weapons-grade nuclear material in Russia and elsewhere, through strategies like the Nunn-Lugar program. It is indeed bizarre that the Bush administration has shown such indifference towards this issue since 9/11, given the way in which it has whipped up public anxiety over terrorists using weapons of mass destruction and used this to drive much of its foreign policy.
In the long term, I have to say that I doubt that nuclear terrorism will be the very greatest threat to U.S. security; that is in my view likely to come from the various direct and indirect effects of global warming. But in the short-to-medium term, Dr. Etzioni is right to point out that this is by far the greatest direct international threat to the safety of ordinary American citizens, and that U.S. policy must reflect this, rather than haring after hopelessly ambitious and unrealizable goals like the democratization of the Middle East or the expansion of NATO to take in much of the former Soviet Union-goals which do not in any way serve the interests or enhance the safety of ordinary Americans. One of the greatest failings of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, and the U.S. foreign policy establishment, has been precisely their inability to establish a hierarchy of priorities, in which lesser, or less achievable U.S. goals would be sacrificed for the sake of the most important ones. In any such hierarchy, the threat of nuclear terrorism should be among the very top priorities.
However, there are also certain grave dangers in this approach, which Dr. Etzioni does not fully address and which require a more subtle and nuanced approach to this issue than it usually receives. The first is that it can tip over into some version of the so-called "One Percent Doctrine", reportedly believed in by Vice President Cheney and his staff, which is that this threat is so terrible that the U.S. cannot tolerate even the smallest chance of it ever occurring. Taken to extremes, this is a recipe for conquering much of the Middle East, North Korea, and indeed a large part of the world.
The problem is of course that if the U.S. were to do that, far from reducing the nuclear threat, it would make that threat vastly greater by multiplying the number of America's enemies. In a more restricted field, the same may be true of Iran. By attacking Iran, the U.S. might set back its nuclear program by a few years-while making it certain that Iran commits itself to the acquisition of nuclear weapons (and not just the potential to make them, which appears to be current Iranian policy). Such an attack would also increase hatred of the U.S. across the Muslim world and increase the internal threat to key U.S. allies in the region-leading to the possibility that the U.S. in the future will face not one but multiple Irans. Is it then supposed to bomb all of them? The U.S. establishment has already made these calculations in the case of North Korea, and decided, correctly in my view, that the costs and dangers of an attack-including the increased danger of nuclear proliferation-would outweigh any possible gains.
Dr. Etzioni also does not sufficiently explore what the reprioritization of U.S. foreign policy along these lines would require, and the degree of courage it would take from U.S. leaders. Thus to bring Russia fully into line behind U.S. non-proliferation efforts would require not only the abandonment of the (as he says, idiotic) present pressure for Russian "democracy." It would require the abandonment of further NATO enlargement, a complete redefinition of the present missile defense program to include Russia, and so on. In other words, it would represent a complete change of U.S. strategy towards Russia, which would be bitterly unpopular with important forces in the U.S. Similarly, as Flynt Leverett and others have stressed, abandoning the threat of forcible regime change against Iran would be only one of the many concessions that the U.S. would have to make to Tehran to bring about a voluntary abandonment of Iran's present nuclear program (which is of course within the letter of the NPT). These would have to include recognition of Iranian influence over much of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a completely new approach to Hizballah in Lebanon. If the nuclear threat from Iran is really so great, then we should presumably be contemplating just such steps. But would Dr. Etzioni advocate them?
Finally, as Charles Ferguson and Ted Carpenter have pointed out, this approach tends to downgrade the factor of deterrence which served us so well in the Cold War, and over-emphasise the "irrational" element in the behavior of the Iranians, North Koreans and others. As was correctly pointed out, Hitler had good reasons in 1941 to think he could defeat the Soviet Union-and given Japanese support, and less bestial Nazi behaviour to Soviet POWs and non-Russian Soviet peoples, he might have succeeded. Certainly Hitler's belief was shared at the time by British military intelligence, a flawed but generally rational institution.