Daniel W. Drezner

The partisan politics of threat assessment

Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich’s obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States: [I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. ...

Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich’s obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States:

[I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences, who might warm to the candidate’s suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea, many nuclear experts dismiss the threat. America’s current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.

The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.

“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”

Yousaf M. Butt, a nuclear physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who last year did a lengthy analysis of EMP for The Space Review, a weekly online journal, said, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption.” He said, “They don’t want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear.”

Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment. But the candidate, a former history professor and House speaker, has defended his characterizations as accurate. At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday for military veterans, Mr. Gingrich said an electromagnetic pulse attack was one of several pressing national security threats the United States faced. “In theory, a relatively small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,” he told the veterans.

I’m neither a security expert nor a rocket scientist.  After reading Broad’s article, the Space Review annalysis, the rebuttal to that analysis, and Sharon Winberger’s excellent FP write-up from last year, however, I’m reasonably confident that the threat posed by EMP is remote for the near-to-medium future.  The scenarios in which an EMP would affect the United States rely on a) rogue states making serious leaps forward in their ballistic missile technology and nuclear engineering; and b) those same actors deciding that it’s in their national interest to launch a first strike against a country with a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent. 

Nevertheless, I can see why Newt Skywalker would be concerned.  Most of the taking-EMP-threat seriously essays harp on the devastating effect of such an attack.  Surely, Gingrich would argue, even a small possibility of this actually happening justifies at least some investment into countermeasures and preventive actions.  Indeed, Gingrich has explicitly made that argument: 

Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds…. I think it’s very important to get people to understand now, before there is a disaster, how truly grave the threat is.*

Fair enough… let’s be generous and say there’s a 10% chance of this being a real problem over the next two decades.  If that’s the case, maybe Gingrich is right to bring it up as an underestimated threat. 

Here’s my question, however.  If we’re talking about threats to civilization as we know it, isn’t there another possibility that has a much higher probability of occurring — let’s say, better than 50% at least — and a similarly lax amount of preventive action?  Like, say, climate change

As Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating have documented for FP, however, Gingrich’s assessment of that threat has changed recently.   Last month, on this issue, he said the following: 

I actually don’t know whether global warming is occurring…. The earth’s temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I’m agnostic.

This is fascinating.  On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field.  On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus.  Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former.  Why? 

I’m not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon.  He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility.  It’s possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I’m dubious). 

What I’m wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles.  I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.) 

What do you think? 

*Incidentally, this is the same logic I used to justify greater research into the threat posed by the living dead.  Just saying…. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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