Commentary

The Best Defense Is No Offense

By Ivan Eland
March 19, 1998

Recently, Russian president Boris Yeltsin warned President Clinton that bombing Iraq could mean a world war. Less attention was paid to a more significant piece of advice Yeltsin gave Clinton. On Clinton’s policy toward the latest crisis in the Middle East, Yeltsin said, “He’s acting too loudly. You have to be more careful in a world that is saturated with all kinds of weapons in the hands of … terrorists. It’s all very dangerous.” How right Yeltsin is.

During the Cold War, the United States reluctantly abandoned its traditional foreign policy. For 175 years, the nation had followed the foreign policy of military restraint overseas and avoidance of permanent, entangling alliances. During the Cold War, in the name of fighting the global threat of communism, the United States sought to micromanage almost every conflict in every region on earth. It also tried to implement Pax Americana by forming alliances such as NATO, SEATO and ANZUS. After 50 years of those policies, our Cold War aberration now seems like the norm.


The most important admission of the DoD report is that “historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”


A decade after the Cold War, the United States continues to intervene in faraway places like Bosnia and Somalia. Despite the fact that NATO’s rationale (defense of Europe against the Soviet Union) has vanished, the Clinton administration is expanding the alliance’s membership and mission. Defenders of the Cold War paradigm argue that, in an interdependent world, the behavior of other international actors increasingly affects the United States. But those interventionists have their heads in the sand. They fail to understand that intervention for anything less than compelling reasons has become far too dangerous.

The proliferation of the fairly low technology needed to create chemical and biological weapons now allows terrorists under the sponsorship of a rogue state (for example, Iraq) or acting independently to retaliate against U.S. intervention abroad by attacking the U.S. homeland. In the past, terrorism was regarded by great powers as a nuisance rather than a central security issue. Both governments and terrorists perceived that causing massive casualties would harm the terrorists’ cause. With revenge attacks becoming more prominent, that comforting perception is now changing. A chilling study by the Pentagon, DoD Response to Transnational Threats, reports that the threat from terrorists is growing because they are now willing to inflict massive casualties. The Oklahoma City, World Trade Center and Tokyo subway incidents bear that out. Equally important, the report notes that the technology for creating weapons of mass destruction has proliferated. Because chemical weapons can now be produced in any pesticide plant and biological weapons can be made in virtually any biomedical or pharmaceutical laboratory, the increasing interdependence of the world may favor David rather than Goliath. Small amounts of those lethal substances — easily smuggled into the United States through normal commerce — could inflict massive casualties in any American city.

The most important admission of the DoD report is that “historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.” New weapons of mass destruction available to the terrorist now make such attacks a central threat to national security. That altered strategic environment should cause the United States to reassess its post-Cold War habit of intervening in conflicts that are not vital to its national interests. Endangering the homeland and its citizens to “enhance stability” or “promote democracy” in some distant and unimportant place is a warped conception of national security. Some people may argue that that is appeasement, but advocacy of swift military action only as a last resort when truly vital interests are at stake is nothing of the sort. Military restraint is only prudent in a more interdependent world where even terrorists can reach out and touch the United States. Why go out of our way to search for enemies?

In the current crisis in the Middle East, neither bombers nor inspectors will stop Iraq’s mobile and easily concealed biological and chemical labs from producing more weapons. Ironically, in revenge for U.S. bombing, Saddam might sponsor a terrorist attack against a U.S. city using chemical or biological agents that were originally produced to intimidate his regional adversaries and posed no direct threat to the United States. And Iraq is hardly alone. Many other countries and groups have the potential to make such weapons for use against their enemies. Clinton should listen to Yeltsin’s warning and make sure that the United States does not needlessly become one of those enemies.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.