Graham Allison: Protecting the Homeland
September 14, 2001
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Graham Allison: Protecting the Homeland
As we mourn the victims of Tuesday''s vicious attack on America, it is not too early to begin thinking about lessons of this horror. A domestic Pearl Harbor sounds an alarm that should wake up American citizens and our government from a decade of what can only be called delusion. The brute fact is that the -- sole remaining superpower -- is supremely vulnerable to unconventional attacks by terrorists and rogue states. Since the end of the Cold War, American policymakers have grown accustomed to intervening intrusively in the internal affairs of other societies. In the past decade, Americans have bombed Kosovo, Serbia, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan; sanctioned 75 countries; provided military support to various friends in ongoing conflicts (Israel against Palestinians, the Northern Alliance against the Taliban); and offered imperious instructions to all comers. Given the overwhelming preponderance of American power, some nations inevitably find discomfort in sharing a bathtub with an elephant. Given the pervasive influence of America''s values and culture, others are offended by who we are. But when this elephant arrogates to itself the role of enforcer of its views about how Iraqis, Afghans, Chinese, and others should manage their affairs, it should not be surprising that some become resentful and even seek revenge. The central delusion in our recent national sleepwalk has been to imagine that we can bomb others with impunity -- as if we lived on another planet. When American B2s leave U.S. bases to launch cruise missiles against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan or refugee camp in Afghanistan, what reaction should we expect? The evident but until Tuesday unbelievable truth is that as the most open society in the world, America is among the most vulnerable -- and not just to ballistic missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction, as President Bush would have it -- a threat certainly, but one that falls closer to the bottom than the top of any realistic list of this decade''s "top ten" vulnerabilities. From hijacked airplanes, to a minivan filled with fertilizer-based explosives parked outside Oklahoma City''s Federal Office Building, America is subject to asymmetric unconventional attacks by terrorists and rogue states. Could the terrorist group that organized Tuesday''s assault have done even greater damage? What about a suitcase nuclear weapon or a crude nuclear device constructed from a softball-sized lump of highly enriched uranium delivered by a minivan? There are approximately 100,000 such lumps of fissionable material in Russian arsenals and stockpiles today. As a recent report of a Bipartisan Task Force chaired by Senator (now Ambassador) Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler, former counsel to the president concluded: "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen by criminals, sold to terrorists or hostile nation states, and used to threaten American troops abroad or citizens at home." Horrific as Tuesday''s assault was, if it can serve to puncture our delusion of invulnerability, some good can come from an otherwise unmitigated evil. If our government will now recognize America''s Achilles heel, and seriously addresses this danger, we can save ourselves from even greater catastrophes than are otherwise likely. What, therefore, should be done? Combating terrorist attacks on the American homeland will require a serious all-azimuth defense -- not for a day or decade but for as far as the eye can see. There exists and can exist no magic shield, no impenetrable bubble, no exit from life on a shrinking globe where international commerce, travel, and most important the individual freedoms Americans rightly value create inescapable vulnerabilities. Today, the President and leaders of Congress should take the advice of a number of recent commissions and order their staffs to produce a comprehensive strategic plan to engage the full array of both unconventional and conventional threats to Americans'' lives and liberties. In the weeks ahead, they should approve a robust program of action to defend the American homeland. A major pillar of such a plan will involve "going to the source" of the greatest danger today, and as the Baker-Cutler Task Force recommends, buying and removing as quickly as possible all the nuclear weapons and weapons-useable material Russia is prepared to sell. What about missile defense? An all-azimuth strategy must address ballistic missile threats as well. Fortunately, such threats are much less likely, and less urgent, than the attack we suffered Tuesday. The reasons why are not difficult to understand. First, to attack the United States with a ballistic missile, terrorists would have had to acquire not only a nuclear warhead (or a biological warhead), but also to have performed further technical feats by building a ballistic missile that could reach the United States and miniaturizing a warhead to fit on the missile. Given the availability of planes, ships, sea-land containers, and even Fed Ex, terrorists and rogue states have easier alternatives. Second, attacking the U.S by ballistic missile has an additional fatal drawback: It leaves an unambiguous return address. Any group or state that initiated such an attack would know that it had signed a warrant for its sudden death. As Americans awake from the shock and horror of Tuesday''s attack, we should now get real about defending America''s homeland. Defending ourselves will, in time, require a roof against ballistic missile attacks. But for tomorrow and the decade ahead, we have much higher priorities beginning with intelligence about threats, preemptive actions to prevent threats before they happen, and more mundane initiatives that will secure the windows, walls, and doors of our American home against this clear and present danger. Graham T. Allison is Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard''s Kennedy School of Government. He is a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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