I want to call attention to a little noticed irony in hawkish attitudes towards risk, and to use it to reflect a bit on a taboo in American political debate which has potentially serious consequences.
During the Cold War, hawkish attitudes to the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union were often alarmingly casual. I donâ€™t mean that anyone actually wanted a confrontation. But hawkish rhetoric and strategizing flirted more openly with the risks of nuclear annihilation than many of us were comfortable with â€“ and that includes many of those who supported standing up to the Soviets in all sorts of ways. (This isn’t a point aimed exclusively at Republicans, of course – think of McNamara’s advice to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
It’s worth remembering how serious a risk we were all flirting with. A nuclear exchange would have wiped out life on earth.
Compare this to the threat of terrorism. What is the worst that a terrorist could do? Well, it’s pretty damn awful. In the worst case, a small nuclear device packed in a truck in Midtown Manhattan could kill hundreds of thousands, destroy the American economy, spread sickness and devastation, and render my favourite city in the U.S. uninhabitable. But this is still not as awful as the complete and final destruction of life on earth coldly contemplated by hundreds of pointy-heads in government and Think Tanks for the duration of the Cold War. And although this is a difficult judgment call, I think there’s considerably less risk of a worst case terrorist attack than there was of a nuclear confrontation.
It isn’t being cavalier about terrorism to point this out, since even less than worse case terrorist attacks are awful enough that we ought to be prepared to go very far out of our way to try to prevent them.
And again, I don’t mean that anyone intentionally courted disaster during the Cold War. I mean that the risk of nuclear annihilation was never considered an absolute argument stopper when policymakers were weighing risks of different sorts against one another.
The irony, then, is this: Hawks during the cold war went from excessive risk-taking in the face of a far greater threat, to a total refusal nowadays to countenance any course of action that involves an increased risk â€“ however slight – of further terrorism.
Critics of the current administration have noted that many of the hawks who were gaming intelligence during the Cold War were up to the same old tricks during the build-up to the war on Iraq. And indeed, there is a depressing continuity both in actors and tactics here. But it has eluded critics that the underlying attitude towards risk has been completely reversed: The risk of terrorism is no longer considered a risk to be balanced against other risks in other areas. It is a trump card, a genuine argument stopper. It is now the case that to identify a plausible measure in the War on Terror is automatically to have a decisive reason to act, whatever the other consequences.
Now, perhaps this is more a feature of hawkish rhetoric than hawkish belief. Anyone who is serious about protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks should also be serious about adequate funding for homeland security, and this is not something which the Bush administration or its defenders have been serious about. Still, I have a sense that I’ve put my finger on a real article of faith in the administration and among its supporters. And anyway, it functions as an argument stopper in real political debate, so we might as well treat it as sincere and examine it accordingly.
It might also be objected that the nature of the threat has changed in ways that make this shift in attitudes to risk intelligible. But this overlooks the fact that, for one thing, the risks presented by further terrorism are less serious than the ones contemplated by policymakers and analysts in during the Cold War (What is the best case scenario involving a nuclear exchange?). I think this also overlooks the years of uncertainty during the Cold War about whether, in fact, the Soviets were deterrable. Don’t forget that this was once a very open question, especially over the years as each side postured to try to stare down and unnerve the other. But, more important, this objection misses the main point. The undeterrability of terrorist groups is part of the risk we’re considering. And what I’m comparing is the risk presented by these two very different kinds of adversaries and the attitudes of American policymakers to that risk.
Without our much noticing or debating it, this principle â€“ the one that says that no risk of terrorism is acceptable under any circumstances, and can’t be weighed against any other sort of risk in formulating policy â€“ has hardened into one of the firmest taboos in American political culture. It’s the explicit party line of the hawks, who trumpet it most loudly, but it’s also never been challenged effectively in the mainstream, as far as I know, and this has allowed it to enter the conventional wisdom by default.
Despite this, I think it’s a terrible principle, and one that is bound to mislead Americans. In fact, I think it’s bound to make all of us much less safe given enough time.
Let me explain this by describing one of the consequences of the principle in action. Consider the U.S.’s dealings with Russia. The relationship is complex, with all sorts of trade-offs, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. But one very prominent justification offered for the U.S.’s steadfast refusal to press Russia on Chechnya, or human rights in general, or the failure to respect the rule of law, or for generally behaving like France on the international stage, or for any number of worrying developments, is that Russia is an ally in the war on terror and provides intelligence cooperation on Muslim extremist groups. (And the same considerations apply to China, more or less, mutatis mutandis.)
Well, I’m sure it does, though I’ve not heard many stories of actual cooperation. On balance I rather doubt that the trade is worth it, even on its own terms. Russia’s behaviour in Chechnya has surely done more to inflame radical Muslim sentiment than its intelligence on radical groups could ever compensate for. But set this aside, and assume that the trade makes sense from the point of view of combating terrorism.
Also set aside â€“ just for the moment – the moral question: Is Russian intelligence so good that it’s worth turning a blind eye to the wanton persecution of human beings in Chechnya? Hawks who like to brag about saving Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo might want to chew on that one for a while. It’s a bit deflating to add Chechnya â€“ and the U.S.’s non-response to it – to this supposedly glorious story. Pooty-Poot is a war criminal, and anyone who stares into his beady little eyes and comes away without shuddering is a fool or worse. But let this go for a minute.
The most serious prudential point is that U.S. policies which subordinate the goal of fighting terrorist groups over everything else miss the fact that an increasingly unhealthy Russia is bad for the U.S. (and a lot of other people, like, for example, Russians) for all kinds of reasons quite unrelated to terrorism. Investment, a stable source of oil, a potentially reliable partner, an actor on the global stage which still has considerable influence â€“ all these things are set at risk by the sort of political decay in Russia that the U.S. has so clearly declined to resist since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
This is a bipartisan criticism, by the way, and a problem in which â€“ just to be clear â€“ there are more factors than an interest in combating terrorism. I think Clinton’s coddling of Yeltsin for quite different reasons played a crucial, and very unfortunate, role in bringing things to this point.
But the War on Terror as an article of unquestioned faith has made things much worse, and now stands firmly in the way of a re-evaluation of the policy. Here, then, is the effect of the taboo: Our politicians (and indeed, most of the chattering class) now lack the vocabulary, and perhaps even the conceptual tools, that would help to evaluate the various risks and balance them sensibly. That’s because balancing them sensibly would require them to seriously consider the possibility that other considerations might, in principle, outweigh the risks posed by terrorism. It might make sense to accept slightly more risk in the War on Terror in order to achieve a more stable Russia, assuming for the moment that helping to bring about a stable Russia actually did require the U.S. to jeopardize a potential source of intelligence on extremist groups. In fact, I think this particular trade off would be worth it. And I live in New York!
Now, part of the solution here would be to try to figure out a way to frame the political debate which doesn’t allow this point to be distorted into the simplistic claim that critics of the assumption are soft on terrorism, and don’t take national security seriously. Perhaps you can figure this out. I’m not sure I can.
It’s important to rethink this mess of intuitions from the start. For the refusal to consider different sorts of trade-offs influences more than just foreign policy. It figures prominently in the debate over civil liberties, for example. People have assumed that Ashcroft and others are acting consistently with past positions when they balance civil liberties against terrorist measures and civil liberties come off worse for it. But in fact we’ve come a very long way from the days of “Better dead than red”. It would be nice to have just a bit more of that spirit back in the right. It would be better to have just a bit more of that spirit back in all of us.