FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
September/October 2001
Volume 54, Number 5
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Front Page
The Search for Proliferation-Resistant Nuclear Power
To Provide for the Common Defense
September 11 & the Future of National Security

To Provide for the Common Defense

By Henry Kelly

The atrocious attacks on New York and Washington may force the first serious national debate on security issues in a generation. Isolated from the blood feuds of Europe and Asia, and protected by distance, wealth, and overwhelming military superiority, Americans have had the luxury of ignoring these issues. The absence of a draft made the issues even more remote. The discussions seemed to be about obscure issues in distant lands and none of them seemed to present a serious threat to our own territory. At the periphery of most citizens' attention, national security issues received almost no attention in the past few Presidential elections.

The price of public inattention has been high. It provided a shield behind which groups with financial interests or people obsessed with ideological zeal often dominated the debates. It was difficult to find a sober assessment of the nation's real security interests in the heat of this insiders' game. The public debate was cheapened by cynical focus on symbols instead of substance: "Did you avoid the draft in 1967?," "I propose to spend more money for defense than you do" (without bothering to explain whether funds would translate into real security), "Will you support the God Bless America Defense System?"

Even Secretary Rumsfeld's plans to force a sclerotic military and intelligence bureaucracy into a new era appear to have foundered in the face of some of the nation's most skillfully manned defenses - an energized lobbying community. While many of the changes he proposed are wrongheaded, he deserves credit for attempting to focus defense investments on the needs of a new era, and upgrade defense technology.

It would be bad enough if we were simply wasting money. But the misappropriation of resources starves legitimate defense and domestic needs - including new intelligence, training, and next-generation conventional weaponry that would actually be used by US forces, strengthened domestic and international defenses against terrorism, and defenses against chemical and biological attacks. Even worse, the fictions created to justify fanciful programs in the ethereal world of press releases can lead to real harm to our security. Our unilateral obsession with missile defense undermines our ability to work in alliances and weakens efforts to control proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The reality is that against the advice of our own military, we stint on advanced research and technology to pour money into aircraft and ships designed to fight wars we know will never be fought, and maintain scores of expensive, unneeded bases and laboratories to satisfy political, not military, needs. Nuclear weapons cannot contribute to any military action contemplated in the Middle East, or any conflict the US can conceivably enter. Any use of nuclear weapons in any conflict by any party would weaken, not strengthen, US interests. Yet despite the end of the Cold War we have made virtually no changes to our enormous nuclear weapons complex. We pay to maintain nearly 6000 nuclear weapons on a state of high readiness ready attack targets that no one seems able to define. And we put domestic politics above security interests by risking international programs to control nuclear proliferation and valuable alliances to pursue a program to build an enormously expensive missile defense system _ a system designed for a highly unlikely threat and that only the faithful believe has a chance of working.

Programs put together to deal with the urgent problems of terrorism must be imbedded in a longer-term strategy that builds security out of domestic defense investments, coupled with multinational efforts to contain and eliminate threats of violence and lay the foundations for sustainable economic development worldwide. Force must be used, but used skillfully. Our military must be able to react quickly, intelligently, and with appropriate levels of violence. But most, if not all, of the plausible threats to US security can only be met through multinational action. In the long-term, the best investment will be in measures that remove the forces that drive terrorism and compromise our ability to promote the spread of democratic governments.

The misery of Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations impoverished by brutal and incompetent governments provides a natural breeding ground for terror. It would be hard to find another region so poorly governed or where so few governments show movement toward open societies or functioning markets. It is a naked secret, however, that the US tolerates these governments because they ensure stability in world oil markets. More than half of all the oil in international markets today comes from the Persian Gulf and by 2020, these nations could be supplying 60-70%. Does anyone seriously believe that we fought the Gulf War to "preserve democracy in Kuwait?" Yet this fiction remains an unchallenged part of the US official canon. When did we last denounce civil rights abuses in Saudi Arabia?

One result of this hypocrisy is to hide the real price of gasoline that appears so cheap at the pump. Our room for diplomatic maneuver in the Gulf is limited and the pressing need to mount an attack on targets in Afghanistan forces us, once again, to associate ourselves with regimes that breed resentment for which there is no legitimate outlet.

Supplying the equivalent of a few months of US oil consumption by destroying an Alaskan wilderness is an absurd response to our petroleum dependence. We need a strategic energy policy that points to a long-term solution based on research, regulation, and incentives to encourage a new generation of highly efficient vehicles, environmentally sustainable substitutes for petroleum, and new strategies of urban design and transportation.

We have also not mustered the courage to stand up to extremist factions in either Israel or Palestine that make demands obviously inconsistent with permanent peace in the region. The enormous diplomatic and economic leverage we have applied to build an alliance to support military action in Afghanistan would surely be as usefully applied in forcing a just resolution of this dangerous issue. Our vacillation, and reluctance to use our considerable power to influence all parties to the dispute, makes it easy to misinterpret our intentions.

A final point is that nuclear weapons make the world less, and not more, safe for the United States. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons of terror - they cannot be used without inflicting massive casualties on civilians. Overwhelming US superiority in conventional weapons means that anything we can do to discourage development, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons would be in our interest. The presence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and loosely accounted nuclear materials in the Former Soviet Union represents one of the greatest dangers facing the US today. It is absurd for the US to cut funding aimed at making the Russian material more secure, oppose the nuclear test ban, and threaten to withdraw from existing international arms control agreements. We should instead be taking the lead in a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons testing, strengthening safeguards for nuclear material, and pursuing agreements that reduce the number of nuclear weapons and quantity of weapon-usable fissile material worldwide. The US and Russia should immediately cut their nuclear weapons inventories to 1000 or less and put pressure on China not to expand its arsenal.

If we can extract one thing from September's tragedy, it is to engage in a serious national assessment of where real dangers to national security lie and how we can combat them. This debate is long overdue.

In dangerous times we have always managed to summon America's greatest strength - our openness to change and our confidence that a free people will choose wisely in open debate. The debate surely must begin. As usual, Lincoln put it best: "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."