Commentary

International Developments Call U.S. National Security Policy into Question

By Ivan Eland
October 1, 1999
Two recent developments should awaken the U.S. foreign policy establishment from the slumber it has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. The world has changed dramatically, but U.S. national security policymakers remain dangerously locked in the mind-set of the Cold War period.

The first development is the publication of a report by the Commission on National Security/21st Century, the so-called Hart-Rudman commission. That panel reached conclusions about what the global security environment will look like in the next quarter century and what threats the United States will face. The commission rather casually came to a chilling conclusion: “States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

The report continued, “for many years to come Americans will become increasingly less secure, and much less secure than they now believe themselves to be … While conventional conflicts will still be possible, the most serious threat to our security may consist of unannounced attacks on American cities by sub-national groups using genetically engineered pathogens.”

The second development reinforces the first. Russia has been terrorized by apartment building bombings alleged to have been committed by Chechens, who are fighting for an independent Islamic state in Dagestan and have an enmity toward Russia for its brutal attempt to repress Chechen independence aspirations in the mid-1990s. The bombings are evidence that the international playing field, long dominated by the great powers, may have shifted weaker players to the advantage. Although the bombs used in Russia were conventional, the terror and damage inflicted by the weaker party could have been magnified exponentially if a weapon of mass destruction (nuclear, biological or chemical) had been employed. The Hart-Rudman commission warns that such powerful weapons may be used on American territory.

In terms of conventional indices of power, the United States is unrivaled. Yet it may now be more vulnerable to an attack by weapons of mass destruction than it was during the Cold War. If conventional conflicts between powerful states are less likely, as the commission argues, perhaps we should worry more about this more important threat.

About 40 percent of terrorist attacks perpetrated worldwide have been directed at U.S. targets. It is unusual for a country with friendly neighbors and no civil war or insurrection to be such a prominent target for terrorists. We should first ask what motivates terrorists, state sponsored and independent, to target the United States.

The commission answered the question somewhat more honestly than others in the foreign policy establishment: “Much of the world will resent and oppose us, if not for the simple fact of our preeminence, then for the fact that others often perceive the United States as exercising its power with arrogance and self-absorption.”

But terrorist groups rarely attack the United States because of our military, economic or cultural preeminence. Even in radical Iran, the world’s most notorious state sponsor of terrorism, Disney characters—symbols of U.S. cultural and economic influence—were present at the 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Rather, terrorists attack the United States for what it does: arrogantly exercise its political and military power overseas to intervene in the affairs of other nations. I have documented more than 60 terrorist incidents directed at the United States because of its interventionist foreign policy.

Excessive U.S. intervention in a post Cold War world arises from the United States’ hubris associated with being the “world’s only remaining superpower” and from fear generated from its experiences of opposing great-power rivals in World War II and the Cold War that any conflict could spiral out of control into a global conflagration. Yet the commission predicts that wars between major powers will become more rare and that most conflicts will occur internally within states.

As the only remaining superpower with no peer on the horizon for another 20 to 30 years, the United States should be more self-assured and delegate the policing of less threatening conflicts to friendly regional powers. Although an extended defense perimeter may have had some value during the Cold War, the costs far outweigh the benefits in an age of catastrophic terrorism. If the motivation behind terrorist attacks against the United States can be removed or attenuated, the chances of a catastrophic strike will be reduced.

Given the valuable insights the commission has provided into the principal danger facing the United States in the post Cold War international security environment, it reached a strange conclusion about the desired role of the United States in that environment. The commission argues that “the United States will be called upon frequently to intervene militarily … The United States must act together with its allies to shape the future of the international environment, using all the instruments of American diplomatic, economic, and military power.” Alas, the commission’s membership, drawn from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, rendered it incapable of reaching the obvious conclusion: In the new international environment, U.S. intervention overseas lessens rather than enhances the nation’s security.

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