Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The real nightmare scenario

By Aaron Friedberg Getting back to the question here, I’d like to begin with one big thing that the Bush administration got right before turning to something that it got wrong. Whatever one thinks about the way in which it sought to address the problem, I believe that the administration’s post-9/11 assessment of the danger ...

By , Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

By Aaron Friedberg

By Aaron Friedberg

Getting back to the question here, I’d like to begin with one big thing that the Bush administration got right before turning to something that it got wrong.

Whatever one thinks about the way in which it sought to address the problem, I believe that the administration’s post-9/11 assessment of the danger posed by the possible confluence of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction was essentially correct. Terrorists armed with crude nuclear or biological weapons might not be able to physically destroy an advanced industrial democracy like ours, but they could force us to fundamentally alter our way of life. The expansion in governmental powers and the challenges to civil liberties that followed 9/11 would look like child’s play after even a modestly successful WMD attack on an American city.

One of the toughest things about dealing with this threat is that it is extraordinarily difficult to assess its imminence. A recent bipartisan report to Congress concluded chillingly that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

But who is to say if this is right? And, if we can’t tell how great the danger is, or whether it is rising or falling, how do we know if we are devoting sufficient resources to the problem or whether the policies we are pursuing are making things better rather than worse?

The Bush administration rightly saw this as a large and looming danger, and their desire to forestall it was behind much of what they wound up doing over the last eight years: pressuring North Korea, Iran and (more successfully) Libya to abandon their nuclear weapons programs; trying to induce Pakistan (and Russia) to better secure their nuclear facilities; rolling up the A. Q. Khan network; creating at least the beginnings of a domestic capability for detecting WMD and defending against their use; taking an extremely aggressive approach to gathering intelligence against and attacking terrorist organizations; overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to deny al Qaeda a safe haven from which it could continue its efforts to acquire WMD; and, of course, invading Iraq in hopes of removing what was thought to be the most likely nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Did these measures, individually and collectively, lessen the threat or increase it?  Was whatever incremental increase in safety they produced worth the costs?  One can argue over whether the Bush administration got the prescription right, but I believe that its diagnosis was on the mark.

My biggest concern over the next few years is that we will mistake a temporary reprieve for a permanent cure or perhaps decide that the danger was never that great to begin with and stop taking some admittedly unpleasant medicine.  If that happens we could be in for some very unpleasant surprises.

Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987, and co-director of the School of Public and International Affairs' Center for International Security Studies.

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