A Real War on Terrorism

Policing Weapons of Mass Destruction
Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 12 2002 11:33 AM

A Real War on Terrorism


This is the eighth in a nine-part series on how America should fight the war against terrorism.


President Bush sometimes casts his aspiration to invade Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. That's plausible enough. Iraq probably has biological weapons and is presumably trying to make nuclear weapons, both of which could be given to terrorists. What's not plausible is that this sort of invasion could work as a long-term strategy for keeping such weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

The Bush administration believes that at least six countries have secretly tried to develop biological weapons, including other "axis of evil" members North Korea and Iran. Presumably Bush isn't planning to invade all six. Maybe he hopes that an Iraq invasion will intimidate other nations into swearing off biological weapons. But surely he wouldn't trust them to keep their word. (And even if they offered to let Americans come in and verify their compliance, would that be enough for this administration? Various Bush officials, in justifying an attack on Iraq, have suggested that weapons inspections aren't reliable.)

The problem goes deeper. Biological weapons, much more than nuclear weapons, can be developed without government support, since the equipment it takes to develop them is found in universities, hospitals, and pharmaceutical plants, among other places. In fact, if you're making small quantities of some bioweapons—or are willing to make bigger quantities very laboriously—you can use hobbyist-sized fermenters and centrifuges that are available on the Internet. So, even if Iran's government joined the axis of goodness, biological weapons could, unbeknownst to it, be made somewhere in Iran. Or they could be made in countries that already reside on that axis, such as America. The post-9/11 anthrax may well have been made in the United States (though it was too high-grade to have been made with amateur equipment).

So, what exactly does this administration plan to do, in the long run, about the proliferation of biological weapons? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that any solution would have to reckon with Proposition No. 10: The lines separating domestic policing and foreign policing, national security and international security, are rapidly blurring.

Consider: 1) Increasingly, as biotechnology advances and expands, foreign attackers can launch their attacks from within America, with weapons made in America. 2) Obviously, so can native-born terrorists. 3) Increasingly, lax policing by foreign governments of their hospitals, universities, pharmaceutical plants, and so on could imperil American national security. 4) There's also, of course, the old-fashioned threat of foreign governments purposefully developing bioweapons and giving them to terrorists.

Before exploring this problem further, let's make it slightly more terrifying. In addition to biological weapons, there may someday be "nanotechnological weapons" that share the key properties of the spookiest biological weapons: microscopic, self-replicating, and lethal. But in this analysis I'll stick with the problem of bioweapons, since any solution to it would, broadly speaking, work for nanotechnology as well. As for nuclear weapons: I'll skip them entirely (except to echo those who note that we're doing a really bad job of securing loose nuclear materials around the world). The reason is that nukes—more cumbersome and conspicuous to make and deploy than bioweapons—are not, relatively speaking, all that challenging. If we can figure out a way to control bioweapons, then controlling nukes should be plenty doable.

The first step toward controlling biological weapons is to think big. In light of Proposition 10,it's hard to imagine a secure America decades from now unless: 1) all the governments in the world are verifiably not making bioweapons that could be given to terrorists; and 2) all nations are being policed effectively enough so that it would be very hard for non-governmental agents to make such weapons. Obviously, this is a long way from the world we have now. In fact, it's so far from that, and so far beyond the reach of the incrementalist policy proposals that get airtime in Washington, that getting there will require visionary leadership.

If President Bush is a visionary, he is slyly concealing this fact. His administration's last headline-making initiative in bioweapons control was to annoy roughly the whole world by rejecting an arduously negotiated protocol that would have put some teeth in the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans bioweapons internationally. This rejection isn't by itself unforgivable; a number of experts consider the protocol deficient, in need of revision if not overhaul. (It focused on the routinized monitoring of big, relatively easy targets, such as government labs and pharmaceutical plants, while doing little that would stop a small band of creative free-lance bioweapons makers.) What's unforgivable is that the Bush administration—even after Sept. 11—suggested no strengthened version of the protocol. It just suggested invading Iraq.

What path might be followed by an administration more enthusiastic about arms-control agreements? I'd recommend two complementary strategies, one "bottom-up" and one "top-down." Decades from now, after lots of trial-and-error evolution, these two approaches could converge on a single, coherent international policing structure that would be up to the challenge. Or maybe they wouldn't, and millions of people would die instead. But I say we give it a shot.

A big part of the "top-down" strategy is Prescription No. 11: Develop a serious international inspection system for biological weapons.For starters, we could pick up the ball where the Bush administration dropped it—with an earnest attempt to put teeth into the toothless Biological Weapons Convention. That would include an unprecedentedly robust inspection regime. Any nation plausibly alleged to have biological weapons would be subject to short-notice inspection by an international body (a basic approach that America already subscribes to by virtue of having ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention).

A second part of the top-down strategy would be rules regulating the international shipment of biological cultures. There are nearly 50 germ banks around the world that make anthrax samples available for sale or exchange or giveaway. What do you have to do to qualify for shipment? Whatever the people with the anthrax say! Except for the 33 nations that belong to the strictly voluntary "Australia Group," there is no uniform code governing the export of microorganisms, or for that matter the export of equipment that can be used to make bioweapons.

A standard gripe about all international weapons-control regimes is that the nations that participate in them tend to be nations that don't need watching anyway. Just take a look at who isn't part of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the one somewhat intrusive international inspection system the planet has mustered to date: Iraq, North Korea, Syria.

In the long run, such nonconformity is literally unacceptable. No nation can be safe decades from now if any nation remains opaque to international scrutiny. America and the world will have to develop a set of carrots and sticks that eventually makes international weapons control planetary in scope. The day may come when one of those sticks has to be war.

In this light, one regrettable thing about the administration's threat to invade Iraq is that it hasn't been deployed in the service of this cause. Iraq, in rebuffing weapons inspections mandated by the U.N. Security Council, is in violation not just of international law, but also of exactly the kind of international law whose violation the world, increasingly, can't afford to tolerate. You wouldn't know this to listen to the Bush administration's pronouncements on Iraq (or, I should say, to listen to the dominant themes in the mélange of free-form administration utterances over the past few months). Rather than demand that inspectors be readmitted to Iraq, Bush officials have vowed to effect "regime change" regardless of Iraq's behavior, bad-mouthing weapons inspections to justify their position. They've thus squandered a chance to shore up respect for internationally mandated inspections, which, though imperfect, will have to play a role in the future unless we plan to have wars on an annual basis. (Among the problems with such wars: Is telling a man thought to possess biological weapons that you'll kill him no matter what he does really the optimal way to shape his incentive structure?)

Encroaching political reality may, even as I write, be forcing the administration to abandon its instincts and issue a weapons-inspections ultimatum before invading Iraq. Better late than never.

Fortunately, war isn't the only persuasive tool the world can use to corral all nations into a global policing structure. The world also has an international trading system in which more and more nations are embedded and exclusion from which would mean serious trouble for any of them. Conveniently, that system has a formal embodiment—an organization whose members are guaranteed access to international markets. Hence Policy Prescription No. 12: Use the World Trade Organization as the fulcrum for ensuring compliance with international weapons-control law. Refuse to admit nations to the WTO if they don't sign vital international treaties, and when WTO members violate a treaty—by, say, rebuffing inspectors—impose an automatically escalating set of penalties, in the form of rising tariffs, that culminate in expulsion (with expulsion understood to be a likely prelude to war).

This sort of economic leverage is getting more powerful and will probably keep doing so. More nations (e.g., China) keep joining the WTO, and more nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia) keep vowing to. And the more members the WTO has, the more valuable membership is, since membership brings favorable access to the markets of all members. Meanwhile, it's getting harder for even the most die-hard Stalinist dictator to resist the lure of prosperity. As the globe becomes more of a village, leaders of backward countries have more trouble concealing from their people how the rest of the world lives. Even in low-tech North Korea, the cat is half out of the bag.

Purists will balk at "corrupting" an essentially economic organization with extraneous functions. Well, a) better corrupt than dead; b) this function isn't really extraneous. Part of sustaining the international trading system is insulating it from terrorist disruption; if a single nuke makes it into some major port on a commercial barge, commercial barges will become a rarer, slower, costlier form of shipment. Those nations not willing to help keep the trading system secure don't deserve to benefit from it.

If carrots such as the WTO fail, then sticks such as war will eventually be necessary. That's how high the stakes will become as Proposition 2makes its force felt. We have to resolve that, one way or another, we will reach a day, 15 or 20 or 25 years from now, when no nation is outside of the international policing system. Secure in that commitment, we can start now to set up an international inspection system and revise it through trial and error, even if the likeliest criminals are temporarily outside of it.

That same knowledge allows us to proceed with the "bottom up" approach to international weapons control. That is, Policy Prescription No. 13: Imagine how biotechnology would have to be policed in all nations for the United States to feel secure 20 years from now; implement and then continually refine that policing strategy in the United States, while beginning the long, laborious task of getting every other nation on the planet to eventually adopt a comparable system.

Here we should feel free to experiment with ideas that, at the moment, wouldn't stand a chance of adoption on a global scale. For one thing, effective biotech policing in the United States would be its own reward, even if never emulated abroad. For another thing, the chances of emulation abroad will grow as the threat of biological terrorism becomes clearer. Today's radical American proposals are tomorrow's global op-ed staples. 

For example:

1) Recombinant DNA technology—whether in government or university labs or the private sector—will need to be heavily regulated. This is the kind of equipment you would use to create a nightmarish designer pathogen. If, for example, you took the Ebola virus, for which there is no vaccine, and made it as contagious as small pox (for which there is, thankfully, a vaccine) and seeded several cities with the resulting germ, you could make the carnage of 9/11 seem trivial. This kind of genetic manipulation is not science fiction, a fact that makes the currently loose state of regulation in recombinant DNA labs a little scandalous. In the future, gene-sequencers and other recombinant DNA technology could be equipped with sensors and computers that reliably identify and indelibly record every user and every use. (This data could even be sent instantaneously to a remote location.) Possession of equipment that lacked such recorders, or whose recorders had been tampered with, would be a felony. 

2) Lower-tech machines that can make such noncontagious bioweapons as anthrax in high volume—big fermenters in pharmaceutical plants, say—might be redesigned to include similar sensors and computers, with these, too, made mandatory.  As for the less sophisticated, less capacious versions of these devices, such as "desktop" fermenters or centrifuges: At a minimum, these should be regulated as heavily as firearms. Government computers could record all purchases, do background checks on purchasers, and look for suspicious patterns of purchase.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Experiment with bioweapons policy at the national level, the eventual goal being to make the best policies, in effect, international law: Every nation would agree to implement them and might even be subjected to "meta-inspections" or "meta-audits" by an international body as a check on national enforcement.

Getting all foreign leaders to accept strict international policing mechanisms may not be the biggest challenge. Getting America's national leaders to accept them may be—in particular any intrusive short-notice inspection system. After all, America, as a party to any inspection system, would have to itself be open to the inspections. The current ideological cast of the White House, and for that matter the Republican party, doesn't bode well for this prospect.

One of the major Republican dissenters on an Iraq invasion, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, doesn't favor weapons inspections instead of invasion; he opposes the inspections for the same reason he opposes the invasion: They would violate Iraq's sovereignty! And even less extreme sovereigntists, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, opposed the Chemical Weapons Convention, whose inspection system is less intrusive than effective bioweapons inspections would be.  

What the sovereigntists don't see is that the option of preserving our sovereignty isn't on the table. If international inspectors can swoop down and inspect an American medical school, then, yes, America has in some sense lost sovereignty. But if a few well-educated terrorists working out of Amsterdam can easily start an epidemic that kills 500,000 Americans, then America has also in some sense lost sovereignty. Take your choice. I prefer the first kind of lost sovereignty. Some people may prefer the second kind. But anyone who thinks we can skip that choice, and preserve sovereignty in some across-the-board sense, is, in my opinion, confused.

Is President Bush confused? A case could be made. On the one hand, he definitely doesn't favor lots of Americans dying in a bioweapons attack. On the other hand, his aversion to arms-control treaties is deep and abiding. This year, he reached a nuclear-arms agreement with Russia that was essentially meaningless. It would compel no actual destruction of nuclear arms, but rather their temporary decommissioning, and even that requirement would literally expire the day it took effect, 10 years from now. (I'm not kidding.) Even so, Bush insisted that the agreement be strictly verbal; there was something about the act of signing an arms accord that he couldn't stomach. Finally, under the prodding of Colin Powell et al., he agreed to actually sign a meaningless document. In a sad testament both to Bush's congenital unilateralism and to the impotence of token administration multilateralist Powell, a Financial Times op-ed piece later listed that act of persuasion as one of Powell's most important accomplishments as secretary of State.

International arms control is important both as a specific tool and as a larger metaphor. The subordination of national behavior to international law will have to happen in various policy areas in order for the war on terrorism to succeed. So long as any single nation is a haven for terrorists to park their funds in, or their hackers in, or themselves in, the rest of the world, notably including us, will be in trouble.

The good news for ardent sovereigntists is that often the solidification of international law won't much affect American law (and, strictly speaking, will never supercede it). As we cajole other nations into tightening their policing of money laundering, or their policing of hackers, we'll largely be converting them to policies that already exist in America. But even here we'll need to think big and treat international law as something to be nurtured, not shunned or ridiculed.

So, the Iraq issue is among other things a valuable microcosm. Over the past few months, in President Bush's aversion to seeking a U.N. mandate, in his aversion to giving Iraq a final weapons-inspection ultimatum, he has revealed an indifference if not a hostility to nurturing a robust, enforceable system of international law—and in exactly the area where victory against terrorism most demands it. That global and domestic politics may now have cornered him into recalibrating his position doesn't change what this says about  his basic attitude. It's an attitude that is not an ideal feature in someone leading a war on global terrorism. One might even go so far as to suggest that America won't seriously wrestle with the terrorism problem—in all its dimensions—until there is regime change in Washington.

But that's for voters to decide. My job is just to write a series of articles on how to fight a real war against terrorism. The final installment will appear tomorrow.



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