More than a year after "America the Vulnerable" appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the United States remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Little has been done to make first-responders ready to respond. With the budgets of 43 states and most major cities hemorrhaging in red ink, the funding backlog for training, protective gear, detection equipment, and bolstering emergency communications remains virtually untouched. The promise of federal assistance has fallen victim to the politics of the budget authorization process. While there is growing awareness of the vulnerability of the maritime transportation networks that move over 90 percent of America’s trade with the world, the Pentagon is spending 50 times more protecting its own bases than Washington is spending on the security of the nation’s commercial seaports. The post-September 11 anthrax attacks highlighted the moribund state of America’s public health systems, yet most cities and states still lack the specialized equipment to detect a disease outbreak nor do they have the means to manage a major epidemic. U.S. energy distribution systems and food and water supplies remain largely unprotected. Finally, many of the best-trained and experienced personnel that governors and mayors will want to turn to in the face of a disaster are members of the armed forces reserves or belong to National Guard units. They are being called up and deployed for the likely war with Iraq.

Ironically, military action against Iraq and the subsequent occupation elevates the terrorist risk. Since Iraq, al Qeada, or any other U.S. adversary cannot realistically aspire to victory on the field of battle by going toe-to-toe with conventional U.S. military forces, they must avail themselves to the asymmetric tactics of a David seeking to topple Goliath. The open nature of the U.S. society along with the sophisticated, concentrated, and interdependent critical infrastructures to support its way of life practically invite catastrophic terrorist attacks.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration remains wedded to conventional notions of U.S. warfare, believing that the overwhelming application of military force against terrorist organizations and their sponsors is the best deterrent. The central argument advanced in my earlier essay—written just two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon—is that preparedness at home also plays a critical role in combating terrorism. It does so by reducing its appeal as an effective means of warfare. When these horrific acts fail to leave societal and economic disruption in their wake, than the military incentive for undertaking them is neutralized. Much to my dismay, it likely will take a second catastrophic attack on U.S. soil to inspire a seriously reexamination of the ends and means of homeland security.

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  • Stephen E. Flynn is Senior Fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard. This article is adapted from his chapter in "How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War," published by PublicAffairs and Foreign Affairs with the support of the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By Stephen E. Flynn