The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
By Graham Allison. Times. 263 pp. $24
AMERICA THE VULNERABLE
How Our Government Is Failing to
Protect Us from Terrorism
By Stephen Flynn. HarperCollins. 234 pp. $25.95
The homeland security debate of the last three years actually has been remarkably Spartan. The mission of political leaders and independent analysts -- to protect the United States from another deadly act of terror -- is mostly articulated in the grammar of science. From the benchmark study by the National Research Council, Making the Nation Safer (2002), to the growing literature on the vast possibilities of attack and parry, the emphasis has been on fortifying the United States either by applying technology or by denying it to our enemies. It is a discipline we honed in many military campaigns and perfected during the Cold War.
Two new entries in this literature apply the stock device of scaring us before they offer palliatives. That the tactic is familiar makes it no less chilling, and the arguments in both of these books are persuasive. Both authors have strong credentials in government and academia: Graham Allison is a durable fixture of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and was an assistant secretary of defense in the 1990s, and Stephen Flynn was an adviser to President Clinton and now works at the Council on Foreign Relations.
They take different routes to make similar points -- namely that for all the fuss of the last three years, the United States is more nakedly exposed than ever and that, in allowing this, President Bush has mismanaged his job. From two men associated with the Clinton presidency we can expect a certain partisan tint, but both books put forth arguments with solid technical detail.
In Nuclear Terrorism, Allison paints a picture of potential calamity by describing what the detonation of nuclear bombs would do to various cities -- Washington, New York, Chicago -- in a litany that calls to mind a Helen Caldicott speech circa 1980. He points out where and how nuclear weapons and materials are unsatisfactorily safeguarded, and how groups like al Qaeda are working hard to acquire them. So much of what Allison imparts is familiar -- analysts such as Paul Leventhal have been writing about these threats for years -- that it would be easy to overlook a compelling message: We are courting colossal disaster, and we need to take action now.
Allison outlines this action in a list of three No's and seven Yesses. The No's are simple: no loose nukes, no new nukes, no new nuclear states. All three demand muscular diplomacy and the ability to rein in the technical capacities of "loose-nuke" countries (mainly Russia and Pakistan), impose strict controls on the production of nuclear fuels, and use the old carrot-and-stick approach to prevent North Korea from deploying nuclear weapons.
The Yesses are less compelling, if only because they read like a political convention speech: build a global alliance against nuclear terrorism, make prevention a priority, improve intelligence and so on. Allison aims two sharp jabs at Bush: He implores him to conduct "a humble foreign policy" and wage a "strategically focused war on terrorism." He refers only obliquely to one of the most devastating criticisms of the Iraq War -- that it is creating a locale and logic for recruitment to jihad. But he asserts that a general lack of prudence -- Bush's recent and careless discarding of an international treaty to curtail the production of nuclear materials, for instance -- reveals how misguided our war on terror has been.
Stephen Flynn's masterful America the Vulnerable is also critical of the Bush administration, but his scope is broader than Allison's, and he presents a case informed by analytical insight, real anecdotes, possible scenarios, and his own hands-on experience. In addition to being a former White House adviser (under the elder Bush and Clinton), he has commanded a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat and served as lead author of the independent Hart-Rudman task force on terrorism.
His argument focuses on the many initiatives the administration might have taken to enhance the safety of targets in the three years since 9/11: the securing of container ships, for instance, or the active protection of seaports. He paints vivid, hypothetical scenarios of how weapons of all kinds could be smuggled into our loosely policed points of entry: In one of these, he describes a complicated plan mounted carefully by terrorist cells in several American cities to detonate a container bomb and sever all communication and movement in the 200-mile radius around Newark airport -- "the most concentrated piece of transportation infrastructure in the Unites States . . . that supports forty million people."
Flynn's remedies rely on technological fixes of various kinds. More useful are his suggestions of how to integrate anti-terrorism measures into the fabric of American life. He mocks "our event-driven approach to addressing vulnerabilities" -- the steps taken as a result of a Fourth of July scare, or the convention worries -- as a "reactive enterprise" that is "costly, ugly, and largely ineffective." He contrasts these efforts with "how we have come to manage the safety imperative over the past century" -- how regulatory practices enforced industrial standards, for instance, although businesses and politicians resisted them, and how these practices succeeded because, when all is said and done, safety makes sense for the bottom line. Once safety and security become part of the design and mundane operations of systems, Flynn tells us -- from oversight of American farms to the guarding of airport perimeters to the tracking and checking of ships -- vulnerabilities are significantly lessened.
Flynn has the courage -- rare among national-security experts -- to think large: He notes that if we are "smart in how we construct a security deterrent, we will achieve other benefits." He observes that securing livestock from bioterrorism (through early warning of contamination) would protect us from other threats, such as mad cow disease. Similarly, the long-neglected public health system, if bolstered to deal with bioterrorism, would end up more equipped to handle ordinary diseases.
This last point is crucial. If, as seems almost certain, the threat of terrorism lasts decades, code orange alerts and distant wars will prove inadequate and counterproductive. For us to succeed, public and business sectors must subscribe to a security agenda that promises real results, whether or not we experience more aggression. If we plan well, we stand the chance to emerge with better health care, better schools, better transportation; we will dramatically lower our reliance on oil (arguably the root of the whole problem); we will find a way to end the worldwide nuclear fuel cycle altogether; and we will return tangible goods and services to an American public that is already being charged a colossal bill for an incompetent and often tragically misdirected "war on terrorism."
Allison and Flynn are no polyannas. They both show how utterly exposed the United States will be regardless of the wise correctives they offer. But the point is made clearly in these books that, in order to protect the homeland, the United States must pursue a far more flexible, creative and ethical diplomacy in regions of the world that are sprouting politically violent groups. Today, the United States is doing just the opposite. As essayist James Carroll persuasively argues in his new collection, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War, the "crusade" Bush invokes harks back to earlier Christian campaigns in the Middle East that "required new and overarching systems of social control," "sparked two hundred years of social disorder in the region" and were an "overwhelming failure." The collective wisdom of these books is simple: We need to build, as we did during the Cold War, the science to protect ourselves, but gadgets and plans and military prowess cannot substitute for smart politics. That is as true for the United States at home as it is for the United States abroad. It can't get any clearer than that.
John Tirman, a program director at the Social Science Research Council, is co-author and editor of "The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11."