Friday, November 18, 2005

States

Predictably, the Journal editorial page today devotes all of its energy to a full-scale attack on anyone, from John Murtha to John Warner and everyone in between, who has suggested that we should be thinking about an end to American involvement in the Iraq War. The lead editorial assures us that "that's pretty much exactly what the White House has in mind assuming next month's Iraqi elections go smoothly." Nonetheless, anyone else who advocates it is, according to the Journal, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The Journal claims that, despite the Bush Administration's plans to withdraw, any suggestion that we might withdraw will inspire terrorists and insurgents, while undermining our Iraqi supporters. Given that premise, it's hard not to wonder if the Journal spilling the beans on the White House's still nominally secret plan to start withdrawing won't have the same effect.

But never mind all that. Endless back-and-forth over this failed presidency is hardly worth the trouble anymore. More interesting is the question of where we go from here. On that issue, the most interesting piece from today's Journal is Daniel Henninger's column.

We'll politely look past the concluding nonsense about "the current opposition spectacle in Washington" in which Henniger concludes that "the political absolutism now normal in Washington arrived at the moment -- Nov. 7, 2000 -- that our politics subordinated even a war against terror to seizing the office of the presidency." Mr. Henninger was deputy editor of the Journal editorial page in the nineties, so he was presumably around for the series of editorials insinuating that Bill Clinton ordered the murder of Vincent Foster, the editorial explicitly suggesting that Bill Clinton ordered the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father because he was being blackmailed by the Cuban government, and the many other instances of lunatic opposition featured on the pages of the Journal in those halcyon days. He must have just forgotten.

What we really want to call attention to is not the partisan rabbit punch at the end, but the central point of the article, because it comes so close to a genuine insight, but then narrowly misses in a revealing way. Henninger claims to be concerned that if Americans believe George Bush lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, they might also come to believe that "the very notion of weapons of mass destruction is also doubtful." This seems pretty wildly unlikely, but at least the opportunity to fret about the hidden costs of any criticism of George Bush gets Henninger focused on the issue of nuclear weapons in terrorist hands. This is among the most important foreign policy issues facing the US today, if not the most important. A successful nuclear terror attack would kill orders of magnitude more people than died on 9/11, and likely cause sweeping crackdowns with unpleasant effects on civil liberties and the American way of life.

Henninger warns that, "Saddam may be gone, but what isn't gone is the global marketplace and trade in nuclear-weapons material that is the legacy of the infamous A.Q. Khan network." This network, which sold bomb parts and technical knowledge around the world to the highest bidder, has indeed been a disaster. Khan, a Pakistani national hero for his work in developing the Pakistani bomb, has not been seriously punished for the creation of the network, and parts of it are surely still at large. So Henninger is right to conclude from this episode that "mass murder has gone mass market . . . all you need is money; the expertise and material can be bought."

But he then goes on to ask "Do we prefer this ability in the hands of democracies or dictatorships?" Well, of course, as Henninger suggests, a Brazilian bomb would be of less concern than an Iranian one. We have less to fear from nuclear weapons in the hands of governments that are democratically elected and broadly share our values than we do from the same weapons in the hands of dictators who aren't and don't. Not always; Indian nuclear weapons are considerably more likely to be used (in a Kashmiri war) than are the weapons of dictatorial China or authoritarian Russia. But in general conservatives like Henninger are of course right to say that friendly, democratic states are less of a threat than unfriendly dictators.

Unfortunately, this misses the main point that Henninger ought to be taking from his own observation. If "all you need is money," then you don't need a state at all. And in fact it is nuclear weapons in the hands of non-state actors that represent the most alarming threat of all. The Iranian and North Korean leaders that worry Henninger may be evil and crazy, after all, but so were Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. Both men had nuclear weapons and neither used them because America's nuclear weapons were a deterrent. There can be no guarantee that deterrence will work as well against these new nuclear powers, but there is no chance of deterring a stateless terrorist group with no fixed address to retaliate against. State-centered conservative thinking on these issues, and the Bush foreign policies that have been guided by it, never quite come to grips with this central fact of modern times. The real threats to America in the future are likely to come not from hostile governments, but from Al Qaeda-style non-state terrorist organizations that form and flourish in chaotic, lawless war zones. Henninger's column this morning assembles all of the pieces of this insight, but remains trapped in the very state-centric view that 9/11 and the A. Q. Khan network have demonstrated is a less and less valuable way to think about the world.

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