We have reached a point in history when the margin for error we once enjoyed is gone… the cost of underestimating the threat is unthinkable.
— U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld
One of the arguments I’ve heard proffered by some Democratic members of Congress and others as an objection to the administration policy is that action against Iraq will keep us from prosecuting the War on Terrorism. Until recently, we’ve heard few forceful arguments from the U.S. administration that Iraq was part of the War on Terrorism. It was, I think, clearly implied that actions such as this would be necessary from the very beginning. But the connection with Iraq had not been stated explicitly for some time. The President remedied this in his 2003 State of the Union:
Today, the gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror, and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation. […]
America is making a broad and determined effort to confront these dangers. We have called on the United Nations to fulfill its charter and stand by its demand that Iraq disarm.
It is now clear that the Bush administration views Iraq as part of the War on Terrorism, and so the argument that dealing with Iraq will detract from it has lost one of its key supporting points. If you still are in doubt, the way to ask this question would be more accurately phrased as follows: “Is this the best way to fight the War on Terrorism?” This has the benefit of acknowledging the administration’s actual position, and therefore being intellectually honest.
How exactly should the administration deal with the threat of terrorists obtaining weapons of mass destruction? Should we ignore it? Should we give in to whatever their demands are, and therefore encourage anyone who would like us to change our behavior to nuke an American city to get their way? I don’t think these are serious options. How about beefing up homeland security some more? This is something we’ve also heard from many Democrats as an option. Keep in mind that a small nuclear device could be carried in a large trunk, or put into the bottom of a standard shipping container, encased in lead, and buried under a mound of pistachio nuts and then loaded onto a ship with thousands of such containers and headed to New York from the Middle East. If I recall correctly, we currently inspect about 1% of incoming containers. If we double, triple, or even increase by twenty times our spending on this effort we would still not be able to check the vast majority of such containers.
Even if we employed a veritable army (say 200,000) of customs officers to inspect every single containerized cargo ship completely, we would still be vulnerable. These people are not stupid, they would simply change the method of delivery. A determined terrorist could still buy a small sailboat and sail right into New York harbor, or buy an SUV and sneak through from Canada through the dense woods of North Dakota, or put it in a suitcase on a scheduled flight into Washington D.C. and detonate it as it flew over the capitol bulding, or . . .
How can you defend a three thousand mile border with Canada, a fifteen hundred mile border with Mexico, both of which are currently so open that people cross them illegally by the thousands every day? And we also have thousands of miles of coastline. No amount of money and manpower could guarantee that a single person could not get into the country either by plane, on foot, or on a small sailboat if they were committed enough. We could shut down international travel and trade, spend half our budget on this effort, and still provide only a marginal increase in security.
You cannot possibly prevent such an attack once a determined person already possesses such a device. You cannot win by defense alone.
Clearly, we cannot give up and simply sit and wait for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of Americans to be killed. The only realistic option left is to lean forward, not back. Terrorists, however, are hard to find, and usually have no fixed address where we can send police by to make a few inquiries. When possible, we should hunt them down and kill them or capture them. But we will not be able to find all of them.
So if we can’t find all or even most of the terrorists, as is likely, what else can we do? Weapons of mass destruction are not easy to manufacture in a cave or a tent while on the run. They require the resources of a state to develop the more difficult kinds, and the protection and safe haven of a state to develop even the simpler ones. Terrorists may not have military and other assets that we can strike. But the states that support them do. This is why the President said immediately after Sept. 11th, “we will make no distinction between the terrorists that committed these acts and those that harbor them.”
This does not mean we must make war with the entire world. Most of the world will, in fact, rally behind us if we are willing to show resolve, and as we are proven successful. There are relatively few nations that are actively supporting terrorism in a form that threatens the United States. One at a time, we must give this small number of countries an ultimatum — they must cease and desist all such activity immediately, or else. After years of “reflexive pullback” when we were attacked in Somalia, the U.S. embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, and other instances, the enemies of the United States have learned that we do not follow through on our threats, and we are not willing to pay the price of blood for securing our safety and that of our allies. When we made such a threat to the Taliban, for instance, one could excuse them for not believing we would really invade Afghanistan, which we were told was the “graveyard of empires.” Well, we did.
We have now given the same ultimatum to Iraq. We have worked through the U.N. to the greatest degree possible, we have many allies (including 18 in Europe, at last count), but the President has been steadfast in his determination and has made this clear to Saddam Hussein and the world. After Iraq, when we turn to other outlaw regimes such as North Korea or Iran that also have ties to terrorists, and whom we believe may provide weapons of mass destruction to them, they may listen to that ultimatum when it comes to them a little more carefully. Hopefully, the restoration of our credibility on these matters can prevent some future wars. But we are going to have to earn it back first.
Should we do anything? What must we do? We must, in fact, do exactly what the President has started to do. The war on Iraq is another step in the rational prosecution of the War on Terrorism, and it should not and will not be the end.