National Security Isn't Just about Terrorism

Report Homeland Security

National Security Isn't Just about Terrorism

April 9, 2004 5 min read
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.



In the politically charged atmosphere that has engulfed election-year Washington, many have forgotten that national security involves more than defending against terrorism. It also involves defending against missiles, defending against conventional forces, and maintaining deterrence against a wide variety of potential threats. A myopic, single-issue defense policy would leave the nation vulnerable. Fortunately, however, the federal government is fully capable of doing more than one task at a time.



Naive Charges
Some critics have charged that the Bush Administration's principled support for missile defense prior to September 11th somehow blinded it to the threats posed by Al Qaeda and other terrorists. They cite leaked portions of a speech that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had been slated to deliver on September 11, 2001. This is a disingenuous charge lobbed by some who are more interested in discrediting missile defense than in bolstering defenses against terrorism.

First of all, it is naive to assume that because the National Security Adviser had planned to focus on missile defense rather than terrorism in one particular speech to a college audience that the administration discounted the threat of terrorism. In that same speech, Rice would have mentioned that the government was spending almost twice as much on fighting terrorism as on missile defense. Rice planned to stress in the speech that anti-terrorism defenses and missile defenses were two aspects of homeland security and that neither should be neglected. In her words, "Why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open?"

Second, the critics falsely imply that the Bush Administration was locked in a zero-sum situation in which building a defense against missiles somehow weakened efforts to defend against terrorists. But this simplistic notion that the federal government cannot walk and chew gum at the same time is laughable. While the Pentagon took the lead on funding research for missile defense, the struggle against terrorists was waged by a wide variety of other agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department, the State Department, and several subcomponents of the Defense Department that had nothing to do with missile defense.

Moving Beyond Either/Or
Missile defense was not a distraction, but a complementary policy that bolstered national security. After all, missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction are the ultimate terrorist weapons. As bad as September 11th was, the bulk of the destruction was confined to three buildings where about three thousand people perished. A single missile armed with a nuclear warhead could destroy an entire city, killing hundreds of thousands. Clearly, the scale of the potential threat posed by missiles was much larger than the threat posed by other methods of terror.

Moreover, the rogue regimes that posed the most worrisome future missile threats were the same regimes that were known for exporting terrorism. Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria all had a long history of supporting terrorism, and all sought weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. Since September 11, we have discovered that nuclear proliferation was much more extensive than previously believed because of a Pakistani network that sold critical nuclear technologies to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Although Libya-deterred by the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein-has dropped its weapons programs, Iran and North Korea have the capabilities to kill far more Americans than Osama bin Laden ever could.

The Heritage Foundation published a series of papers in the months before September 11 demonstrating that a strong commitment to missile defense does not preclude a firm counter-terrorism policy. For example, the urgency of addressing the growing missile threat was laid out by Research Fellow Baker Spring in a January 2000 paper, "Missile Defense Programs Lag Behind Threat," and in a September 2000's "Clinton's Failed Missile Defense Policy: A Legacy of Missed Opportunities."

In October 2000, Heritage published "Proliferation Continues After President's Decision to Defer Missile Defense," which catalogued a series of disturbing reports on missile proliferation involving North Korea, Libya, Iran, Syria, India, and Pakistan that followed President Clinton's September 2000 decision to defer the decision to deploy a national missile defense system until the next administration.

In January 2001, the Heritage Foundation published "Establishing the National Priority on Missile Defense," which called on President-elect George Bush to "reaffirm his support for missile defense in his Inaugural Address, establish a legislative agenda to achieve it in a State of the Union address, and translate missile defense policy into programmatic recommendations when he presents his budget to Congress." In a May 2, 2001, "Missile Defense Q&A," Heritage's Jack Spencer argued that the threats posed by missiles differed considerably from those posed by terrorists, warned against "comparing apples and oranges," and recommended that the United States "devote adequate resources to meeting both of these threats." Spencer also published " Moving Forward on Missile Defense" in July 2001, which stressed the importance of fully funding Bush's missile defense program.

These papers (and many others) advocating the building of an effective national missile defense system did not distract the Heritage Foundation from urging stronger action against the growing threat of Middle Eastern terrorism. The Heritage Foundation warned the Clinton Administration that it needed to focus more broadly on ousting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to reduce the threat posed by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network in the July 2000 paper "Defusing Terrorism at Ground Zero: Why a New U.S. Policy is Needed for Afghanistan."

Heritage also called for a systematic strategy to uproot terrorist groups from sanctuaries and uproot regimes that give state support for terrorism in "The Yemen Bombing: Another Wake-Up Call in the Terrorist Shadow War."

Indeed, Heritage was one of the first think tanks to warn about the rise of transnational, Islamic-extremist terrorist groups. In 1994, Heritage published "The Changing Face of Middle Eastern Terrorism," which predicted that the worldwide spread of Middle Eastern terrorism organized by Islamic extremists would pose radically new and more lethal threats to the United States and its allies.

As should be clear, neither the Heritage Foundation nor the Bush Administration discounted terrorist threats while advocating a stronger missile defense. Those who claim that focusing on one distracts from the other are conjuring up a false choice for political purposes.

James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation