Terrorism, Missile Defense and Arms Control

Terrorism, Missile Defense and Arms Control

In August 2001, a former chief terrorism expert at the Department of State wrote in the New York Times that the Bush Administration was obsessed with terrorism and using it to persuade the American people to build missile defenses.



In August 2001, a former chief terrorism expert at the Department of State wrote in the New York Times that the Bush Administration was obsessed with terrorism and using it to persuade the American people to build missile defenses. Larry Johnson complained that terrorism posed little threat to America, and whatever threat it did pose was receding. In 2002, two National Security Council experts on terrorism during the Clinton Administration, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, argued in a newly published book that the Bush administration's obsession with building a missile defense blinded it to the threat of terrorism, a false claim echoed by former Clinton official Richard Clarke. Who are we to believe?


Given the polar opposite views of White House and State Department experts on terrorism, it is now easy to believe Clarke's 2002 claim that between 1998 and 2001, the Clinton Administration could not even agree to come up with a counter-terrorism plan. It is as Dick Morris writes in his 2003 book. Clinton simply found the job "too hard to do", a point echoed by none other than Richard Clarke himself who is quoted in Richard Minister's "Losing Bin Laden" that Clinton failed to take terrorism seriously in large part because it was too hard to do.

There are many who see no threats from ballistic missiles and see terrorism as more of a law enforcement issue than a matter for military intervention. Senator Kerry recently theorized that the threat of terrorism is primarily a law enforcement issue. By definition, of course, a law enforcement solution generally requires a reaction "after the fact." Seeking to arrest the bad guys once they have detonated a bomb that kills thousands isn't very helpful.

Law enforcement measures are, obviously, inadequate to the task before us. The question we have to ask those wedded to this approach is: "how many Americans have to perish in terrorist attacks before the United States decides to take action against the complicit rogue states?"  One member of the U.S. law enforcement community said after the World Trade Center bombings in 1993 that "we don't do states" in response to an inquiry of why the FBI wasn't seriously examining the state sponsor connections. 

Part of the problem is the prejudice against "preemption." For some reason, preventive action using combined military, political and diplomatic power to avoid attacks somehow is beyond the boundaries of permissive action. We are forced instead to wait for, as our President so eloquently put it, "permission slips from the UN."  Ironically, the aversion to pre-emption disappears, however, when the Bush administration critics need to be its strongest backers in order to be against another favorite whipping boy, missile defenses.

Believe it or not, the most passionate opponents of missile defense, for example, support the preemptive use of military force to destroy missile-launching facilities! Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment, (CEIP), for example, argued in a debate with me on NPR that missile defenses against North Korea were unnecessary because we could simply "take the missiles out." Philip Coyle, a former Clinton defense official, now with the Center for Defense Information, (CDI), argued in an interview that Canada need not cooperate with the U.S. on missile defense because any missile deployment by North Korea would simply be destroyed by a US pre-emptive strike. And one Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) official argued at a recent National Defense University conference that missile defense was simply a waste of money because, he argued, "we can just pre-emptively destroy the missiles on the ground."

Now, pre-boost phase defense, meaning destroying enemy rockets before they have lifted off, is a great idea. Let's do it. But to be successful, we have to know where the rockets are, and we can't miss. On the other hand, the CEIP, the CDI and the NRDC have all been rabidly against missile defenses for Americans. And at the same time, they have been the loudest critics of pre-emption as a policy tool for dealing with weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, rogue regimes or other threats. What gives?

The answer is simple. Any argument that can be used against the administration will be used, no matter how contradictory, silly or out of bounds. These pretzel type arguments made by opponents of this administration were also on display at an arms control conference held at Georgetown University in late January of this year.

One major issue discussed was whether our nuclear deterrent needed to be made more credible, in addition to whether missile defenses should be deployed or pre-emptive action taken. Senator Biden, for example, argued we didn't need smaller nuclear weapons because building new weapons would violate our pledge under the Non Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, to disarm, but then admitted the US had enough small nuclear weapons, some of which were developed during the Clinton administration. And he opposed building missile defenses because he said whether or not we intercept an incoming warhead, we are still going to strike back. I guess the idea of saving millions of Americans lives has never occurred to the Senator from Delaware!

But the conference gets better. One panel of experts claimed the North Korean nuclear deal of 1994 was wonderful, but then quietly admitted the North Koreans were blatantly cheating, only then coming back to their conclusion that the Bush Administration ought to sign the same deal all over again!! One commentator admitted a good and solid agreement could be proposed, one that ended the North's nuclear weapons program, but it could never be negotiated with the current regime -shorthand for admitting that North Korea simply has no intention of giving ups its nuclear weapons program.

Despite most participants being wedded to relics of the Cold War such as the ABM treaty, one speaker made the excellent point that the deployment of missile defenses made excellent sense as part of an overall counter-proliferation policy. To the extent that the President's new initiative on interdicting ballistic missile technology, or prohibiting the sale or transfer of such technology, makes any deployment of such missiles less robust, missile defenses need not be either perfect or initially capable of destroying all types of missiles. Both measures are complimentary and will be improved and expanded over time. As National Security Adviser Rice so correctly noted, ‘there is no silver bullet.'  Unfortunately, you didn't read any of this in the Washington Post or The New York Times. But you read it here.


Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a Maryland defense consulting firm. He is Senior Defense Associate at NDUF. He specializes in nuclear weapons, missile defense, terrorism and rogue states. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his affiliated organizations.