Event Horizon

February 27, 2007 Topics: Nuclear Proliferation

Event Horizon

Mini Teaser: We must prepare for the ultimate threat to nations. Thoughts from one of America’s leading grand strategists.

by Author(s): Robert S. Leiken

Fred Charles Iklé, Annihilation from Within(New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 142 pp., $24.50.

FRED CHARLES Iklé has been called one of America's two or three remaining "strategic long-range thinkers." Undersecretary of defense for Political Affairs and chief of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Ronald Reagan, the distinguished scholar from CSIS now has written a suggestive and disturbing book. Based on his practical experience and the futuristic thinking for which he has become known, his book calls attention to developing threats that receive little official attention or discussion in the media.

Though he is a "hardliner", Iklé's lifelong preoccupation has been preventing the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, whether by the superpowers, rogue states or-what now draws more of his attention-homegrown terrorists. Iklé takes a measure of personal pride, quite rightly, for helping to prevent nuclear usage during the Cold War when temptations were high (nuclear-armed superpower antagonists squaring-off in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Europe), but states capable of delivering nuclear weapons were relatively few and easily identifiable. But ours is a brave new world where "the ineluctable dissemination of technological and scientific discoveries" may soon make nuclear and biological weapons available to insurgents, terrorists, anarchists and doomsday cults. More and more countries will import plutonium fuel adaptable for building weapons. The Internet offers the bomb-maker unprecedented access to data. And the contemporary nation-state often lacks the will or the means to prevent spectacular mass terrorism.

Iklé traces the source of these dangers to a "split in human culture" between two modes. The mode that values faith and tradition provides the "obedience, power, and pride that makes government function." But in the scientific-technical mode truth is sought "via empirical verification rather than tradition and faith." As Karl Marx put it memorably in his Manifesto, this newly independent mode "created more massive, more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together."

The turning point for Iklé was the mid-18th century, when "science began to pull apart from other domains of human activity" in the West. Goethe's Sorcerer's Apprentice-a ballad about the liberation of a robot whose relentless energy spreads havoc-and his Faust were both inspired by what Iklé sees as the rift in a once-unitary moral culture. Leo Strauss called it a distinction between value and fact, philosophy and science. As he wrote:

Traditionally, philosophy and science were not distinguished; natural science was one of the most important parts of philosophy. The great intellectual revolution of the seventeenth century which brought to light modern natural science was a revolution of a new philosophy or science against traditional (chiefly Aristotelian) philosophy and science. . . . By virtue of its victory, the new natural science became more and more independent of philosophy.

But Iklé stresses this was not just a split between science and philosophy, but one that pitted the former against what Iklé calls "the societal political mode." The question for Iklé is whether and for how long the political foundations of the international order will remain unchanged while science and technology keep making the world over.

That the two realms obey different chronologies is plainly evident. Since the Sophists, philosophy has returned incessantly to the debate between idealism and materialism; Strindberg does not supplant Shakespeare, nor Boulez, Bach. While science moves at a breathtaking pace based on empirical verification-not faith or custom-culture moves in a ricorso, as Daniel Bell pointed out in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Islam will not envision rule superior to "the rightly guided caliphs." Christianity does not advance beyond the Gospel. America's political foundations, its "constitutional soul", in Harvey Mansfield's term, still rest on a document penned more than two centuries ago. Yet within that political framework technology has turned an assortment of colonies into an urban information society and a global superpower.

In particular, the nation-state, which achieved primacy under the Peace of Westphalia, is still with us. But it now encounters potent phenomena that it can no longer regulate: capital movements, communications revolutions, genetic breakthroughs, alien smugglers and international terrorist groups. These are the sorcerer's apprentices.

It is the future incarnation of that problem on which Iklé trains his deep and disturbing analysis. Iklé devotes considerable attention to the possibility of a group "annihilating from within" an advanced society. His typical agent of annihilation is an ambitious tyrant-madman. Resurrecting Trotsky's concept of "the initial dual power in every revolution", Iklé posits an aspiring dictator implanting "some of his political followers in the incumbent government." He then anonymously detonates two bombs, say one on Capitol Hill and another at Farragut West Station. The blasts would decapitate the government and spread the panic that would enable "more brawny followers" to seize power. Is this what our adversarial culture is breeding? Or does this scenario borrow too much from the Leninist playbook to be convincing as a concrete contemporary threat?

If you think so, consider the emergence of Bin Ladenism. Iklé sees beyond the horizon, and that is his great merit. Yet, within our horizon, there is at least one radical Islamic party with a revolutionary ideology and an organizational structure based on seeding adherents throughout existing governments in the way Iklé depicts. Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT) is an elite organization staffed by a rigorously trained cadre that attempts to occupy key positions in the economic, bureaucratic, military and political apparatus. It is closest to realizing its dreams in Central Asia, a zone Iklé specifically earmarks. But a former English HT member told me that his group, made up of second-generation Muslims, "dominates the British scene" with some 8,500 members. A former HT-UK leader doubled as an Oxford-trained Ph.D. in molecular biology and the Crown's go-to specialist on foot-and-mouth disease. Besides the bomb, HT lacks only a modus vivendi licensing permissible violence for purposes of installing the caliphate. If it remains stubborn about that, offshoots feel no such constraints.

Iklé's policy fixes are sensibly geared to the United States, global jihad's looming target. One is the functional equivalent of a declaration of war, to mobilize the government in the case of an "ultimate emergency." In the 1950s "the U.S. government had the iron discipline and determination" to build a massive underground bunker under the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia to protect members of Congress in the case of a nuclear attack. Now it balks at a costless congressional act designating the mechanism for the emergency replacement of the House of Representatives (governors would appoint senators).

Deterrence of terrorism means pre-emption, which signifies infiltration. Haunted by the political repercussions of another successful, spectacular terror attack, the Bush Administration insists that plots be disrupted at the earliest opportunity. Its "iron will" has to impose this strategy broadly, most notably in Britain in 2004 and again in August 2006. But early disruption often means inadequate time to identify everyone involved. In 2004, the result was that the future leaders of the July 2005 London bombings escaped arrest. Last August, British penetration led to the premature arrest of nearly two dozen second-generation Muslims planning to explode airliners over the Atlantic. But not everyone involved was caught. Three months later, Britain's internal security chief made a rare public appearance acknowledging mounting jihadi activity in Britain, involving "some 200 groupings or networks, totaling over 1,600 identified individuals (and there will be many we don't know) who are actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas." Could these cells "ineluctably" acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction from the contemporary equivalent of A. Q. Khan (the Pakistani nuclear arms merchant) and produce a London doomsday, or, since most cells consist of British citizens entitled to passports and visa-free travel to the United States, in Washington, DC?

Iklé's most resonant threat transcends "annihilation from within": clandestine international competition in artificial intelligence. If U.S. intelligence found that a scientifically advanced nation-"for example, China"-had achieved a breakthrough bridging computer-based artificial intelligence with brain science, we would face a superhuman intellect that "would revolutionize all prior considerations about national security." Iklé envisions, though "not before the end of the current century", the construction and use of an integrated brain-computer system. Yet according to Moore's law (that every two years manufacturers will be able to fit twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit), and the fact that already a computer chip that interfaces with the human brain has been invented, it seems a fully functional, humanized robot could be attained well before 2100. Iklé notes that "such an intelligence system would integrate human minds with the enormous memories and calculating and organizing capacities of advanced computers . . . lead[ing] to a truly revolutionary upheaval for the human race." In such a race, Iklé believes America would enter with moral constraints not hampering its adversary. Unlikely in Iklé's view to thwart such an adversary would be the kind of "legally binding" treaties that failed in the past.

On artificial intelligence, should we then forget faith and politics and place our bet on science? Can we do that as a society? On WMD, should we be regulating the Internet, where chat rooms have become so instrumental for the terrorist? And who are "we"? Can an international organization be constructed that will be paralyzed by politics, or can the nation-state be fortified, applying the venerable Anglo-American concept of oversight, and of checks and balances?

Essay Types: Book Review