A Failure to Imagine the Worst

The first step toward preventing a nuclear 9/11 is believing it could happen.

In his first speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged members to think about the impact of a single nuclear bomb. He said: "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people." The consequences, he noted, would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life."

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, who could have imagined that terrorists would mount an attack on the American homeland that would kill more citizens than Japan did at Pearl Harbor? As then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified to the 9/11 Commission: "No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon ... into the World Trade Center, using planes as missiles." For most Americans, the idea of international terrorists conducting a successful attack on their homeland, killing thousands of citizens, was not just unlikely. It was inconceivable.

As is now evident, assertions about what is "imaginable" or "conceivable," however, are propositions about our minds, not about what is objectively possible.

Prior to 9/11, how unlikely was a megaterrorist attack on the American homeland? In the previous decade, al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000 had together killed almost 250 and injured nearly 6,000. Moreover, the organization was actively training thousands of recruits in camps in Afghanistan for future terrorist operations.

Thinking about risks we face today, we should reflect on the major conclusion of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission established to investigate that catastrophe. The U.S. national security establishment's principal failure prior to Sept. 11, 2001, was, the commission found, a "failure of imagination." Summarized in a single sentence, the question now is: Are we at risk of an equivalent failure to imagine a nuclear 9/11? After the recent attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, this question is more urgent than ever.

The thought that terrorists could successfully explode a nuclear bomb in an American city killing hundreds of thousands of people seems incomprehensible. This essential incredulity is rooted in three deeply ingrained presumptions. First, no one could seriously intend to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single attack. Second, only states are capable of mass destruction; nonstate actors would be unable to build or use nuclear weapons. Third, terrorists would not be able to deliver a nuclear bomb to an American city. In a nutshell, these presumptions lead to the conclusion: inconceivable.

Why then does Obama call nuclear terrorism "the single most important national security threat that we face" and "a threat that rises above all others in urgency?" Why the unanimity among those who have shouldered responsibility for U.S. national security in recent years that this is a grave and present danger? In former CIA Director George Tenet's assessment, "the main threat is the nuclear one. I am convinced that this is where [Osama bin Laden] and his operatives desperately want to go." When asked recently what keeps him awake at night, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answered: "It's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."

Leaders who have reached this conclusion about the genuine urgency of the nuclear terrorist threat are not unaware of their skeptics' presumptions. Rather, they have examined the evidence, much of which has been painstakingly compiled here by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former head of the CIA's terrorism and weapons-of-mass-destruction efforts, and much of which remains classified. Specifically, who is seriously motivated to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans? Osama bin Laden, who has declared his intention to kill "4 million Americans -- including 2 million children." The deeply held belief that even if they wanted to, "men in caves can't do this" was then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's view when Tenet flew to Islamabad to see him after 9/11. As Tenet (assisted by Mowatt-Larssen) took him step by step through the evidence, he discovered that indeed they could. Terrorists' opportunities to bring a bomb into the United States follow the same trails along which 275 tons of drugs and 3 million people crossed U.S. borders illegally last year.

In 2007, Congress established a successor to the 9/11 Commission to focus on terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. This bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism issued its report to Congress and the Obama administration in December 2008. In the commission's unanimous judgment: "it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

Faced with the possibility of an American Hiroshima, many Americans are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism. Either it hasn't happened, so it's not going to happen; or, if it is going to happen, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Both propositions are wrong. The countdown to a nuclear 9/11 can be stopped, but only by realistic recognition of the threat, a clear agenda for action, and relentless determination to pursue it.



The Real Jimmy Carter

America’s 39th president was not the weak and ineffective leader of popular caricature. But Barack Obama could still learn from his failings.

The hottest new trend of 2010, it seems, is making half-baked comparisons between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Writing in Foreign Policy, historian Walter Russell Mead warns us, "[T]he conflicting impulses influencing how [Obama] thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart -- and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter." There are some real similarities between the two U.S. presidents, it's true. Both men came to office following deeply unpopular Republican presidencies and were outsiders with relatively little national security experience. Both had to depend heavily on their staff for policy advice and direction. But beyond these superficial observations, the comparisons are generally based on the conventional wisdom that Carter was an idealistic but weak president.

The reality was far more complex than that. Carter had a number of notable foreign-policy successes -- the return of the Panama Canal, the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China, and of course, the establishment lasting peace between Egypt and Israel with the Camp David Accords. Getting both sides to sign the accords was undoubtedly Carter's crowning achievement, and he invested his full prestige in the job. Displaying the intense attention detail for which he was often mocked, Carter personally led the negotiations and absorbed all the facts relevant to Israeli and Egyptian concerns about settlements, airfields, and oil reserves in the Sinai.Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin noted at the signing of the accords that "the president took a great risk for himself and did it with great civil courage."

So why is Carter remembered today as a dithering weakling? He may have cemented his own legacy in the history books after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when he ill-advisedly told Frank Reynolds of ABC News that the event had "made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets ultimate goals are than anything they've done in the previous time I've been in office." The statement, as Hedley Donovan, a distressed senior adviser later wrote, opened Carter up to the charge of political "naiveté." The charge has continued to dog his legacy ever since.

The president's statement to Reynolds was an instance of his tendency to exaggerate. Carter had never been "soft" in his views of the Soviet Union. At the 1972 Democratic Convention, he led the "Anyone But McGovern" movement and even nominated the uber-hawkish Washington senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson for president. A reference to the Soviet Union as a "warlike power" in the l974 speech announcing his own run for the presidency was dropped only after one of his aides told him the phrase sounded too "Jacksonian."

It's also unlikely Carter was surprised by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After all, it was he who first authorized U.S. covert operations to aid the mujahadeen the summer of 1978. And in the fall that year, he had received several warnings from the State Department and other sources suggesting the Soviets might invade.

If anything, Carter could be too aggressive with Moscow, and it may have undermined his efforts to reach a deal on atomic-weapons reductions. His first proposal for deep cuts in both powers' nuclear arsenals would have asymmetrically limited Soviet land-based missiles, without corresponding U.S. cuts. Not only that, he unveiled the proposal in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly and then announced increased funding for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty shortly before Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was to present the U.S. arms-reduction proposals at a conference to be held in Moscow in spring 1977. Additionally, he invited Soviet dissidents to meet with him at the White House over Kremlin objections. In these instances, Carter went against the advice of the outgoing secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who warned that confronting the Soviets directly over their human rights violations would be counterproductive. At the Moscow meeting, the Soviets dismissed Carter's proposals, and an embarrassed U.S. team went home empty-handed.

Eventually, the Carter administration embraced what then CIA Director Stansfield Turner described as a "series of policies on nuclear weapons that laid the whole foundation for Reagan's expansion of nuclear weapons, and war-fighting, and war-winning capabilities." He pushed plans to develop the MX first-strike missile system, proposing that it be made mobile by running the warheads on a rail network linking a series silos in Utah and Nevada. After cancelling deployment of the neutron bomb, he backed a new medium-range nuclear system in Europe that could reach Soviet territory. He also increased the defense budget by 5 percent.

That same year, following National Security Advisor Secretary Zbigniew Brzezinski's advice, Carter moved the U.S. into a more prominent role in the Middle East. He promoted security agreements with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and the creation of a rapid-deployment force that could be used against new Soviet incursions around the world. Brzezinski even suggested calling the proposal the "Carter Doctrine.

Carter also provided somewhat better management of the Iranian hostage crisis than he is usually given credit for. He did make mistakes in admitting the shah into the United States, hyping the issue for almost six months and launching an ill-fated rescue mission. But he avoided the temptation for military action, and skillfully used the Iranian assets he froze in the United States as a bargaining chip to secure the hostages' release. His efforts were eventually successful and the fact that the plane carrying the American diplomats only left Iran right after Ronald Reagan was sworn in office was just a final bit of Iranian defiance.

If his opponents remember him for his purported weakness, Carter's supporters often hold him up as a rare president who made the promotion of peace and international morality a centerpiece of his foreign policy. But Carter's legacy in the field of human rights is actually quite mixed. His concerns were not evident during the U.S. civil rights movement. In fact, Carter, as a state senator in Atlanta, sat on the sidelines during civil rights marches, which occurred in nearby Americus and Albany in the mid 1960s. When he ran for governor in 1970, he criticized his opponent, Carl Sanders, for praising Martin Luther King, Jr. and promised that he would not seek the "block" vote, subtly slurring the word so that it sounded like "black." It was only after he was elected governor that he became a vocal opponent of racial discrimination. Carter's deeper commitment to human rights more likely emerged from the exigencies of the 1976 presidential campaign than from prior conviction. International human rights, as his advisor Stuart Eizenstat advised him at the time was an issue that would unite disparate factions within the Democratic Party: Baptists in the south, Americans of Eastern European ancestry, and members of the Jewish community.

During his term in office, Carter spoke a great deal about human rights and the United States did act in accordance with international and national legal obligations.  But this campaign was mainly employed as a public relations tool against the Soviet Union. Other despots got off relatively easy. Carter never put meaningful pressure on Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, a staunch anti-communist. He never campaigned on behalf of dissidents in the Peoples' Republic of China, an equally, if not more repressive regime than the Soviet Union. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's brutal dictator, was welcomed at a White House dinner in 1978 and that country held "Most Favored Nation" status throughout Carter's presidency. Even critiques of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot were muted after Soviet-allied Vietnam invaded his country to end one of the most brutal genocides in modern history.

Most tragically, Carter's early embrace of Soviet human rights giant Andrei Sakharov was not accompanied by support for another heroic figure, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Rather, as documented for the first time in my book, An Outsider in the White House, the administration sought the help of John Paul II to quiet the archbishop's outspoken opposition to a government supported by the United States, but loosely tied to right-wing death squads. Without U.S. or papal backing, the archbishop became an easy target for an assassin's bullet. He was murdered while saying mass in San Salvador in March 1980.

Like Carter's, Obama's presidency will face complications. As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose most notable foreign-policy decision so far has been further committing the United States to a war in Afghanistan, Obama is well aware that U.S. interests don't always correspond with a universally recognized moral standard. Carter had to face the fanaticism of Khomeini and an aroused Iranian people. Obama must deal with the Islamist extremism inspired by Osama bin Laden, and the temptation will always exist to address such problems through military action. Obama acknowledged as much in his Nobel address. But the prudent statesman, as Carter discovered, will know that the decision to use force always places a nation onto morally uncertain terrain in which power is limited and losses may sometimes have to be absorbed. Despite the many challenges that arose during his presidency, Carter avoided putting the United States in that position. This was not weakness; it was shrewd statecraft, and a worthy example for Obama to follow.

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