Commentary

Catastrophic Terrorism: Clinton Is Missing the Point

By Ivan Eland
July 13, 1998

In a recent speech to the graduating class of the Naval Academy, President Clinton perceptively highlighted the growing threat of biological terrorism. Terrorists — acting independently or with the sponsorship of a hostile government — could disseminate deadly microorganisms capable of killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. Five pounds of anthrax bacteria could kill 300,000 people. President Clinton’s proposed response to such catastrophic terrorism, however, is off the mark.

The president advocated strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention “with a strong system of inspections to detect and prevent cheating.” He also proposed upgrading public health systems to detect and warn of biological attacks and stockpiling antidotes and vaccines for the most common biological agents. None of those measures is likely to prevent or greatly mitigate the effects of a biological attack.

Biological weapons can be made with readily available commercial technology in a small facilities, such as wineries or hospital or pharmaceutical labs. Even if a regime of stringent inspections is set up to attempt to detect cheating on the BWC, it will fail to stop the spread of such weapons. The stringent monitoring of Iraq’s biological weapons program has been unable to guarantee that all of its biological material was destroyed. And even in the unlikely event that all of the material were destroyed, Iraq or any other country that wanted to cheat could produce more of it at any one of numerous commercial facilities. In short, the BWC is unenforceable.

Educating doctors about the telltale signs of a biological weapons attack may help, but those symptoms can easily be confused with those of common respiratory illnesses. In addition, detection devices being developed for the battlefield will probably not be effective for use in U.S. cities. The likely delay in detection will probably make the stockpiled antidotes — which usually need to be administered before symptoms show up — worthless. Once an attack is under way, vaccines can only reduce massive casualties if people who are as yet uninfected are inoculated. Even if stockpiled antidotes or vaccines could reach the scene of the attack in a timely manner (which is problematical), they may be defeated by genetically engineered microorganisms that are resistant to them.


The overwhelming percentage of U.S. interventions simply waste lives and resources.


Even the Defense Science Board admitted that government efforts to prevent or mitigate the effects of biological terrorism (as well as chemical or nuclear attacks by terrorists) can be only incrementally effective. Unfortunately, such marginal improvements may allow U.S. leaders to pretend that they are doing something about a largely intractable problem, thus avoiding the only solution that will lessen the chance that catastrophic terrorism will ravage the American homeland: adopting a more prudent foreign policy.

The Defense Science Board acknowledged that “historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.” Therefore, the United States must abandon the policy of intervening anywhere and everywhere in the world, regardless of whether its vital interests are at stake. For example, in recent years, the United States has intervened in conflicts in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia — none of which threatened American security. Now there is talk of intervening in the turmoil afflicting Serbia’s restless province of Kosovo. Disaffected radical groups in any of those conflicts — perceiving that the United States favored the other side in the dispute — could launch a catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States.

Even when the United States merely takes a high-profile role trying to mediate conflicts — such as the Cyprus dispute, the Israeli-Palestinian feud, or the volatile conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan (where U.S. intervention is likely) — it runs the risk of alienating fanatics on one side or the other. Mediation of a conflict is not always perceived as a neutral act. For example, Pakistan welcomes international mediation of the Kashmir question, but India regards the dispute as an internal affair and shuns mediation. Also, parties to the dispute may resent American participation because they perceive that the United States is trying to impose a solution that fulfills American goals. Although mediation may be welcomed by most parties to a dispute, the radical fringe on either side may oppose any settlement at all and retaliate against the mediator. That is not a minor concern, since radical fringe elements are the most likely groups to retaliate against the United States with catastrophic terrorism.

The United States is truly the biblical Goliath of the world. It swaggers like a giant but is now increasingly vulnerable to even the weakest actors in the international system — terrorists. Therefore, the United States must intervene only when a conflict becomes relevant strategically — that is, when an aggressive great power might overrun a region of high economic output (Europe or the East Asia) and use the additional economic and military power it would acquire against the United States.

A policy of military restraint is not one of appeasement. The overwhelming percentage of U.S. interventions simply waste lives and resources. Now they can have catastrophic effects at home as well. President Clinton was right to note the rising danger. But he ignored the real solution and opted instead for feel-good measures that would have only marginal relevance.

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