Hot nukes, extreme measures, and GWB

The Bushies are soft on A.Q. Khan. Where’s the Democrat who will make that an issue?

I have been critical of the view that the current struggle with terrorism is a society-threatening total war on a par with WWII or the Cold War, and therefore of the justifications offered for, e.g., torture or arbitrary detention by Executive fiat, in the name of the War on Terror.

But the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and in particular to the international nuclear weapons trade that might make them available to rogue states or terrorist groups, is a different matter.

The smallest plausible nuclear explosion in New York would instantaneously kill or maim a hundred times as many people as died on 9-11, and untold additional numbers would sicken or die from the delayed effects of the radiation from the blast and from the fallout that would follow. (A ground burst is automatically a “dirty” — that is, fallout-intensive — event.)

Graham Allison argues in his new book that, under current policies, such an explosion is more likely than not to happen over the next decade. I don’t regard Allison as an oracle, and I’m not persuaded that his proposed countermeasures are feasible, but his argument on the threat side seems straightforwardly valid: there are groups that want to do it (apparently bin Laden has published a calculation showing that Muslims would have to kill four million “Crusaders” to even the score), smuggling the stuff in isn’t hard, and the materials and technologies are available on the market.

There you have it: Motive, means, opportunity.

All of the arguments against arbitrary and extreme action remain valid, whatever the reasons for them, but in the case of the hot-nuke trade there’s at least a plausible set of counter-arguments. Moreover, the universe of sellers and buyers of nuclear-weapons technologies and supplies is much smaller than the universe of members and affiliates of terrorist groups, and each one of them is much more likely to have information that might help prevent something horrible from happening.

I would still be very leery of using torture, and strongly opposed to legalizing it, but in the hot-nukes case I would at least be prepared to listen to an argument. Short of torture — and, in my view, assassination is short of torture — I would be inclined to think that anything useful would be justified by its usefulness. If it were the open though unacknowledged policy of the United States to arrange for anyone involved with the A.Q. Khan network — as an employee, a provider of materials or information, or a customer — to become dead, that would seem to me a response proportionate to both the past wrongdoing and the future threat. It might be useful both to prevent future activity by those killed and as a deterrent to those thinking about a career in the nuclear trade.

But of course drastic measures should be undertaken only when less drastic ones have been tried and failed. As a truly horrifying story in yesterday’s New York Times makes clear, the Administration that is so eager to shred the Constitution in the name of fighting terrorism has been markedly lax when it comes to the hot-nukes trade. Indeed, it’s been prepared to coddle nuke-peddlers and their friends in power — most notably Parvaz Musharraf, the Pakistani dictator who pardoned A.Q. Khan and now refuses to make him available for questioning — as long as they support the war in Iraq and help, or pretend to help, with the seach for bin Laden.

(By contrast, when someone like Mohammed ElBaredei of the International Atomic Energy Agency refuses to support false claims about the purported Iraqi nuclear program, that makes him an enemy of the House of Bush, so the U.S. is refusing to cooperate with the IAEA in tracking down the Khan network. Feh.)

There’s a scene in Casablanca where Capt. Reynaud tells his men “Use lots of violence. That always impresses the Germans.” That line embodies a profound truth, and not about Germans: a willingness to take extreme measures always seems to the ignorant a measure of zeal. The Bush Administration’s contempt for Constitutional norms and elementary human decency when it comes to the War on Terror was a big winner on Election Day, because it helped convince the country of the otherwise vastly implausible claim that the GOP was more firmly anti-terror than were the Democrats.

I don’t think the Democrats can compete in that market; even though doing so will surely cost votes, I think they ought to be more vocal than they have been in complaining about torture and arbitrary detention.

But what they can and should do is refuse to concede the anti-terror issue to those whose idea of fighting terror is exhausted by using lots of violence. Somehow — partly through the evil, anti-patriotic genius of Karl Rove and his client/puppet, and the useful (to Bush) idiocy of the Dean/Moore axis of dimness — being serious about terrorism has become defined as being “right-wing,” something that the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” wants no part of.

I liked Wesley Clark in ’04 — and am still open to backing him if he tries again in ’08 — mostly because he was willing to take on Bush from the “right” on security issues. And of all the issues out there where the Bushies have been culpably soft or feckless — North Korean and Iranian nuclear armament, Saudi terror funding — none is more egregious, or more life-threatening to this country, than its willingness to give A.Q. Khan and Musharraf a pass.

Come on, try it. Say, without even a hint of a smile, “Bushism is bad for American national security. The Democrats will be tougher where toughness is necessary.”

See? That wasn’t so hard, was it? You know, I think even Howard Dean could learn to say it, and to say it as if he meant it. After all, it’s true. Or, rather, the part about Bush is true, and the part about the Democrats ought to be true.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: