When the Hart-Rudman Commission predicted in 1999 that
"Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large
numbers," its members were not thinking of 9/11. They reflected a
growing concern that state and non-state enemies, faced with
America's preponderance of power, might seek out chemical,
biological, or nuclear arms that could kill hundreds of thousands
They recognized that, with the exception of a ballistic missile
tipped with a nuclear weapon, virtually none of the so-called
weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might be out of reach for a
well-organized and even moderately well-funded non-state group.
Some could even be fabricated by enemies with modest means and only
a modicum of skill. As for state-sponsored programs, even some of
the world's poorest countries, like North Korea, were capable of
undertaking very sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile
Their assessment was not a one-off. Others have issued similar
warnings, including the recent Graham-Talent Commission. Their 2008
study, A World at Risk, argues that this is no time to be
complacent about WMD. In the decades ahead, efforts to deal with
these threats have to be a cornerstone of providing for the common
It Can Happen Here
The arguments against preparing for these dangers offer cold
comfort. Arguing, for example, that WMD attacks may be "high
consequence" but "low probability" makes little sense. There is no
way to establish probability because there is no predictable data
set to measure. The style of terrorist attack often turns on the
choice of tactic and the terrorists who choose WMD; probability can
go from zero to certainty overnight. Playing the odds on such
threats is the worst kind of Russian roulette, particularly when
looking at the cost of losing. By one estimate, the cost of
recovering from a nuclear attack on New York City could equal the
Nor does it make much sense to argue that terrorists will adopt
"simpler" means or that enemy states can be easily deterred by the
U.S. nuclear arsenal. Terrorists have already gone the WMD route.
The Rajneeshee cult in Wyoming in 1984 launched a biological
warfare attack. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo hit the Tokyo subway
with poison gas. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, letters laced with
anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail. Luckily, these efforts
were neither very sophisticated nor well organized. Next time, we
might not be so lucky. Likewise, the U.S. nuclear deterrent has not
dissuaded North Korea or Iran from pursuing very aggressive nuclear
and ballistic missile programs.
Perhaps the worst of these arguments is the "just-in-time"
argument: When a clear and present danger presents itself, it can
be dealt with then. Even the best strategic intelligence is not
perfect. The U.S., for example, has failed to predict when
virtually every nuclear power would conduct its first weapons test.
Similarly, some dangers, such as the recent swine flu pandemic,
might appear with no warning at all.
Moreover, waiting for the threat to appear before adopting
countermeasures may actually speed the advance of danger. If
enemies perceive that the U.S. has no defense or at best very
limited capabilities, they may actually accelerate their programs
so that they can quickly achieve a real capability to hold America
Possibly the best example of this worst of all ideas is the
Administration's decision to slash the missile defense budget by 15
percent (about $1.4 billion), arguing that current defenses are
sufficient to meet the near-term North Korea and Iran nuclear
threats. This assessment may be wrong. In addition, both countries
may view the U.S. program's loss of momentum as a vulnerability
that they can exploit if they speed up research and deployment of
their own ballistic missiles. This represents a great deal of risk
for little or no benefit.
The Right Strategy
Alternatives to providing for the common defense don't offer
much promise either. In particular, relying on arms control, arms
reduction, and other non-proliferation activities alone offers
virtually no promise of lessening global dangers. Since the end of
the Cold War, the United States has dramatically reduced its
nuclear inventory. That has not stopped the march to join the
nuclear club. Three countries have joined since 1989, and Iran is
knocking at the door.
Likewise, the non-proliferation treaty has not stopped countries
from getting weapons. Both Iran and North Korea were signatories to
the treaty. Today, both have active weapons programs.
The right strategy for dealing with WMD starts with stopping the
terrorists. They may elect to use car bombs or dirty bombs. We
should not wait for them to make their choice. The way to stop
terrorists that threaten the U.S., its interests, or its allies is
by taking out their leadership, disrupting their operations,
breaking up their organizations, cutting off their sources of
recruiting and funding, and discrediting their ideas.
Next, the U.S. must lead the effort to destroy the marketplace
of death, thwarting the transfer of weapons, materials, and
technologies. Proactive efforts like the Proliferation Security
Initiative are great examples of the right kinds of efforts.
The United States must also demonstrate the willingness to
defend itself. Missile defenses and a credible nuclear deterrent,
combined with strong conventional forces that can do everything
from rooting out an insurgency to striking an enemy's missile base
deep inside its own territory, is the right answer.
Finally, America must be a nation prepared. Both the public and
private sectors must work to ensure our resilience in the face of
threats that could stop the heartbeat of the nation. The right
approach is security, preparedness, response, and recovery
solutions that will keep the nation safe, free, and prosperous in
the face of catastrophic threats.
A World Without WMD
With a strategy focused on protecting and defending the nation,
America can make a difference in the world. In the past, for
example, Brazil, Libya, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan
abandoned their nuclear weapons programs, and Russia slashed its
weapons inventory. They did so not because of treaties and
negotiations alone, but because the U.S. helped to set conditions
that convinced them not to go nuclear. The U.S. has also worked
with countries to voluntarily safeguard materials like highly
enriched uranium or destroy threats such as chemical weapons.
The U.S. can and should play this role in the 21st century. It
is in our own interests to do so. But to achieve success, we have
to start with the right foundation-cooperative and non-cooperative
efforts at threat reduction based on a strategy that shoulders the
responsibility to protect and defend America.
Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior
Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The