How to Counter WMD

WORST PEOPLE VS. WORST WEAPONS

President George W. Bush has rightly proclaimed that keeping the worst weapons out of the hands of the worst people is Washington's highest national security priority. But so far, the United States has attacked the people much more vigorously than the weapons.

The war on terrorism that Washington is fighting and the war on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that it needs to fight are related but not identical. The attacks of September 11, 2001, stimulated a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. counterterrorism practices and agencies. The United States went on the offensive in Afghanistan and around the world; border and immigration controls were tightened; emergency response was fortified; and a new Department of Homeland Security was created.

But counterproliferation policies have not been overhauled. The most significant action taken by the United States to counter WMD since September 11 has been the invasion of Iraq. Although at the time intelligence suggesting a recrudescence of Saddam Hussein's WMD programs appeared to justify the war, it now seems that the intelligence was incorrect. Meanwhile, North Korea has quadrupled its stock of plutonium, a far graver setback to counterproliferation than anything Saddam might have been pursuing. A distracted administration has left the initiative for curbing Iran's evident nuclear ambitions to two groups that failed to support the Iraq invasion: the Europeans and the UN. And it has made no new efforts to prevent nonstate actors such as terrorists from getting their hands on WMD.

The term WMD generally applies to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; ballistic missiles; and, more recently, "dirty bombs," ordinary explosives containing some radioactive material. But this definition is too broad. Chemical weapons are not much more lethal than conventional explosives and hardly deserve the WMD label. Similarly, long-range ballistic missiles are especially destructive only if they have a nuclear or biological warhead, and so should not be considered a separate category. Dirty bombs cause local contamination and costly cleanup but not true mass destruction; they too should be given lower priority. The primary focus of counterproliferation policy, therefore, should be nuclear and biological weapons.

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