- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

Humans, as T. S. Eliot reminded us, “cannot bear very much reality.” Better to turn away than look unpleasant facts in the face, particularly if the immediate gratification is a few congressional seats.

You don’t have to be a Republican, or even a conservative, to understand what’s at stake in the argument over national security, but to read the newspapers you might think it helps.

The Democrats and their acolytes in the media and on the nation’s campuses, hungry to come in out of the congressional cold, scoff derisively at George W. Bush’s description of the reality that we’re at war and if we don’t get it right a lot of us will wind up dead.

Henry Kissinger, who more or less invented realpolitik, warns that Europe, Britain and the United States must get together soon if we are to prevent “a war of civilizations” growing in the Middle East. “A common Atlantic policy backed by moderate Arab states must become a top priority,” the former secretary of state for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford writes in The Washington Post, “no matter how pessimistic previous experience with such projects leaves one. The debate sparked by the Iraq war over American rashness versus European escapism is dwarfed by what the world now faces.”

The threat, he says, is centered in Iran, with its support for Hezbollah, the terrorists who tore up Lebanon, and the radical Shi’ites in Iran who are determined to arm an irrational and implacable jihad with nuclear weapons. If this is not reality enough, Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard, lays out the scenario for nuclear nightmare in the new Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Americans have enjoyed a soft life in a security bubble, but it’s a bubble of fantasy fashioned in a drowsy imagination. Terrorism before 9/11 was something that happened somewhere else, in Tanzania and Kenya, and the passage of five years has lulled the escapists halfway back to dreamland. “A chorus of skeptics now suggests that 9/11 was a 100-year flood. They conveniently forget the deadly explosions in Bali, Madrid, London and [Bombay], and dismiss scores of attacks planned against the United States … that have been disrupted.”

The failure to act, by both Bill Clinton and George W. at a time when 9/11 might have been prevented, concluded the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, “was a failure of imagination.” Now a similar failure of imagination leads to discounting the risk of a nuclear 9/11.

Mr. Allison describes a nightmare scenario: “On a normal workday, half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile of New York City’s Times Square. If terrorists detonated a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon in the heart of midtown Manhattan, the blast would kill them all instantly. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire and fallout in the hours and days thereafter.”

Making such a weapon would be difficult, but not impossible. A United Nations study committee concluded five years ago that 130 terrorist groups are already capable of making a crude but effective bomb if they can obtain as little as 45 pounds of highly enriched uranium or plutonium from ample stocks left over from the Cold War.

They might get such a weapon off someone’s shelf. Three years ago, a ranking North Korean official told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that Pyongyang not only has such weapons but is willing to export them: “It’s up to you whether we transfer them.”

Mr. Allison employs an analogy: “Imagine a woman who lives in Tokyo wants to play golf at Pebble Beach [in California], but prefers to avoid the hassle of carrying her clubs through U.S. Customs. … She [could] call a freight forwarder, provide a plausible description of the contents … and have her golf bag picked up at her home. The clubs would travel by ship from Tokyo to the Port of Oakland in California and then by truck to the golf course. The chance of anyone inspecting her bag between her house and the links is less than 3 percent.”

Mr. Allison believes a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not over the next decade. William Perry, the former defense secretary, thinks this underestimates the risk. Warren Buffett, who has made billions calculating risks for pricing insurance, says the odds for such an attack is off the boards. “It’s inevitable. I don’t see any way that it won’t happen.”

But if that much reality is too hard to bear, someone could turn out the light. Then we can all get back to sleep.

Pruden on Politics runs Tuesdays and Fridays.



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