The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America. Everything else — Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence, the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska — is commentary. The nuclear destruction of Lower Manhattan, or downtown Washington, would cause the deaths of thousands, or hundreds of thousands; a catastrophic depression; the reversal of globalization; a permanent climate of fear in the West; and the comprehensive repudiation of America’s culture of civil liberties.
Many proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent. Only technical complications prevent Al Qaeda from executing a nuclear attack today. The hard part is acquiring fissile material; an easier part is the smuggling itself (as the saying goes, one way to bring nuclear weapon components into America would be to hide them inside shipments of cocaine).
We live, seven years after 9/11, in the age of the super-empowered, eschatologically minded terrorist. He is motivated by revolutionary and theological concerns rather than by nationalist grievances, and he is adept at manipulating technology against its Western innovators. In the cold war, the Soviet Union had the technical ability to eliminate America many times over, but was restrained by rational self-interest, by innate conservatism, and, perhaps, by an understanding of the horror of world-ending nuclear war. Though Al Qaeda cannot destroy the world, it will destroy what it can, when it can.
That is why it was so disconcerting to hear Barack Obama, on the ABC program “Nightline” in June, commend the virtues of the federal response to the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993. “We were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial,” he said. “They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.”
This is entirely true, and yet there is no better example of why law enforcement is inadequate to the demands of effective counterterrorism today than the prosecution of the 1993 bombers. The capture and conviction of the terrorists were perfectly executed; the F.B.I. reached all the way to Pakistan to catch the plot’s mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, who is today thoroughly incapacitated at the federal “supermax” prison in Colorado.
And yet, the World Trade Center is gone. Eight years after the first attempt, Ramzi Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, organized a more successful attack. The successful prosecution of the original bombers lulled the country into a counterfeit calm. Law enforcement was obviously unable to prevent the second World Trade Center attack; we must assume, for the country’s sake, that it is also unready for the gathering conspiracies of today, ones we must believe involve non-conventional weapons.
In my conversations with Senator Obama, he seems to understand the menace — early last year, even while trying to secure the support of his party’s left wing, he told me the possibility of a terrorist group obtaining a nuclear weapon was “the No. 1 threat” facing America. But does he understand that this threat cannot be neutralized mainly by law enforcement; that it must be anticipated by intelligence agencies, and eradicated by the military? The paramount goal is not prosecution, but pre-emption.
Did I say “pre-emption”? The doctrine that shall not be named? The Bush administration did the nation no service by pre-empting an Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction program that no longer existed in any meaningful way. The danger, of course, is in the ever-swinging pendulum, whose movement could lead a Democratic president to flinch when presented with intelligence (“intelligence” often being a euphemism for “Mr. President, we really don’t know exactly what’s going on, but ...”) that a ship, or a port, or a nuclear plant faces an imminent, or semi-imminent threat.
All this is not to say that Mr. Obama resembles the squashy caricature drawn by his opponents. He is actually constructively two-minded on the issue. He caught grief for proposing unilateral action against targets in Pakistan, which now appears to be Bush administration policy. And there is spine in his language, sometimes too much. In his convention speech, he said, “McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.” I’m still not sure what this means, but it’s very muscular.
Barack Obama has also made useful proposals on nuclear matters, promising to secure the world’s loose fissile material in his first term. This is an over-idealistic goal, as it would require the cooperation of such countries as North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and, especially, Russia (though he’s better positioned to engage Russia on this subject than is the hectoring John McCain).
There is no one in Washington more sincerely gripped by the issue than John McCain, but he comes with his own set of problems on matters of counterterrorism, not least of which is his rhetorical excess, and his strange decision, given his (justifiable) preoccupation with the issue, to choose as his running mate the figurehead commander of the Alaska National Guard. Though Islamist terrorism might in fact be the “transcendent” threat of our time, as Senator McCain says, it is tactically imprudent to build up the already huge egos of our enemies, to feed the Islamist hope that they are, indeed, engaged in a clash of civilizations.
Years ago, in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, a leader of the Taliban’s morals police, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, asked me to describe just how much the Taliban frightened Bill Clinton. I told him not at all. In fact, Mr. Clinton was probably not frightened enough, but I wasn’t going to let on to that. Watching this man’s crest fall was a rare pleasure in Kandahar.
Senator McCain has other problems worth noting: an excess of incaution, perhaps, about pre-emption (in our conversations, the various surprises associated with the Iraq invasion had not caused him to calibrate at all his views on anticipatory defense); and a seeming inability, or unwillingness, to differentiate among Islamist terrorist groups.
I asked him not long ago whether he believes that America conflates its problem with Iran with Israel’s Iran problem. He said Israel’s existence is an American moral and national-security imperative. “I think these terrorist organizations that [Iran] sponsors, Hamas and the others, are also bent, at least long-term, on the destruction of the United States of America,” he added. “Iraq is a central battleground. Because these Shiite militias are sending in these special groups, as they call them ... to remove U.S. influence and to drive us out of Iraq.”
There are many different things taking place inside his answer, not all of which are connected. Hamas is a disgraceful group, ideologically opposed to most of what America represents, but it is unconnected to the fight against Shiite militias. These conflations, among other things, preclude serious conversation about ideology and motivation.
So what we have is one presidential candidate who still seems to be casting about for an overarching strategy; and another one who is not entirely sure whom we’re fighting. We can hope against hope that in the next two months, these two men will discuss, in a deliberative and encompassing way, the best ways to protect America from what some nonproliferation experts believe is a nearly inevitable attack. We should, in fact, demand that this conversation take place, because nothing else matters.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer and journalist at The Atlantic. His last book is Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.