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Take Security Back from the Insecure

01.09.2006 | POLITICS

In the introduction to his otherwise invaluable new book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Robert Dreyfuss writes that Al Qaeda "has never had access to weapons of mass destruction and it almost certainly never will." However, despite otherwise meticulous references, he fails to footnote this.

Meanwhile Paul L. Williams's recent book, The Al Qaeda Connection: International Terror, Organized Crime, and the Coming Apocalypse, is mercifully free of a glaring omission among his footnotes. In fact, it brims with evidence that consigns Dreyfuss's assertion to the realm of wishful thinking.

As his tabloid title suggests, Williams is a favorite of hard-right news sites like WorldNetDaily ("Al-Qaida nukes already in U.S.") and FrontPageMag ("An American Hiroshima"). Other, ostensibly more sober, hard-right voices--like the Heritage Foundation ("Preventing a Nightmare Scenario") and the Brookings Institute ("Terrorism and Nuclear Energy")--also weigh in on nuclear terrorism.

Even more warnings are issued by the military, government, science, and the academy. Foremost among them is one-time assistant secretary of defense Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. The godfather of the anti-nuclear terrorism movement, he's even been featured in progressive outlets, writing for American Prospect and interviewed in Mother Jones and on

Other than Allison, however, nuclear terrorism rates scant coverage from the progressive press. In fact, one can't help suspecting that the only reason progressives take up the issue at all is that it's yet another cudgel for Bush bashing. As if to confirm that, Allison graded the administration a "D" on nuclear terrorism in his American Prospect article.

Why then are progressives content to settle for glib reassurances like those doled out by Dreyfuss, whose Rolling Stone beat, ironically, is national security?

First, the administration and hard right's approach to terrorism is inimical to that of progressives. Our determination to win hearts and minds is matched only by theirs to harden hearts and lose minds.

Second, we bristle when the hard right uses a sensationalistic phrase like, in The Al Qaeda Connection's subtitle, the "coming apocalypse"--as opposed to, say, the Churchillian "gathering storm." Never mind that Williams too finds fault with the administration, we become suspicious it's just another means of promoting crackpot administration schemes like: a. adding an elbow joint to the war on terror by routing it through Iraq, b. curtailing civil liberties, and c. planning attacks on Syria and Iran.

Third, progressives are lulled by the prevailing notion that Al Qaeda is no longer an organization, but an ideology. A movement, we comfort ourselves, couldn't possibly mount a nuclear attack. This conveniently overlooks the likelihood that bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and their shura (governing council) reserve special cells for their most ambitious undertakings, which they personally sign off on.

Fourth, and most troubling, is the question of whether progressives downplay the threat of nuclear terrorism because our inclination to empathize leaves us as faint of heart as the right paints us. Unlawful detainment, torture, and rendition should be intolerable to citizens of every political stripe. When, however, it comes to fighting terrorists on the front lines, progressives tend to remain mute and let the hard right cheerlead the military and intelligence.

The hard right, of course, has never been above promoting nuclear weapons. But--unlike queasy progressives--it's also capable of putting the ice in its veins to good use when it contemplates the consequences of a nuclear conflict.

For example, back in 2003, "Wretchard" (Richard Fernandez), proprietor of one of the hard right's more rational, as well as popular, blogs, Belmont Club, reminded us that the "relevant Cold War question was [does Russia] intend to use the Bomb." In the age of terrorism, however, it's regressed to, "do [Islamic terrorists] have the Bomb?" Wretchard then worked up algebraic computations for both our and the Middle East's losses after a radical Muslim nuclear attack and the subsequent US retaliation.

Meanwhile, in the center, Ted Turner founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative out of frustration with federal inertia over the issue. "It was only a few years ago," he commented to Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, that he thought WMD nonproliferation "was an area that the government took care of."

Shown on HBO, NTI's doomsday film short "Last Best Chance" was endorsed by Senator Dick Lugar and retired Senator Sam Nunn. Their celebrated Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has worked toward accounting for and locking down WMD in the former Soviet Union. Now Lugar and Senator Barack Obama are seeking to expand the program to include the detection and interdiction of WMD.

In fact, despite concern demonstrated by progressives that the administration's circuitous approach to terrorism makes us less safe, nuclear terrorism may be the only threat to which the progressive media has devoted less attention than the center or hard right. What good is reform if the only kind of reform left to us is the reconstruction a nuclear-devastated world?

Winning hearts and minds is obviously the ultimate blueprint for long-term success. However, it's equally hard to deny that there are factions who are constrained from wreaking havoc on us only because their plans have not yet been finalized. In other words, strategy, no matter how visionary, is always eclipsed by the immediate need for tactics.

It's time now for progressives to swallow their pride, concede that hard right and the center have, for once, been in the vanguard, and adopt a plan proposed by the likes of Allison. Do we really want to let hawks stand at the helm of our security--and our survival?

This article originally appeared on

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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