Terrorists don't act on basis of balance of power

Maggie Gallagher

9/25/2003 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
It is clear now, after the president's United Nations speech, what is keeping George Bush up nights: the vision of a small nuclear bomb going off in Manhattan, on his watch.

"Outlaw regimes that possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them would be able to use blackmail and create chaos in entire regions. These weapons could be used by terrorists to bring sudden disaster and suffering on a scale we can scarcely imagine," he warned Tuesday. The FBI warns that it has credible intelligence from al-Qaida agents arrested in Saudi Arabia that terrorists are seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Think of that mushroom cloud rising over the Statue of Liberty. Think of the millions of people packed into a few square miles. Think Nagasaki. Think Hiroshima. A city devastated and unlivable. The charred remains, the agony of hundred of thousands dying of radiation burns. All our powerful technology, our arsenal of retaliation, even the Star Wars defense system, would be useless against such an unnamed foe.

What protects us and other peaceful nations in a dangerous world? The answer is not United Nations law, but the balance of power. Any state that attacks knows that it could be attacked in turn by a powerful combination of nations. This is why nuclear peace has held for more than a half-century. The vivid horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are warnings to any government foolish enough to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, warnings of what horror it will in turn reap.

None of this balance of power logic applies to terrorists, who strike namelessly and offer no clear target for retaliation. But thankfully, small bands of stateless terrorists on the run cannot realistically hope to build weapons of mass destructions. To pose a credible threat, terrorists require the implicit or explicit cooperation of nation-states to provide sanctuary for training camps and leadership infrastructure, or, worst nightmare of all, to pass on the deadly weapons needed to terrorize Americans and other free peoples. The ultimate goal in Iraq and of this administration is to change the way such governments look at terrorists who direct their threats at the U.S. and others. After Iraq, it is clearly no longer safe for governments to cut deals with terrorists. A new balance of power has been forged.

"All governments," said President Bush, "that support terror are complicit in a war against civilization. No government should ignore the threat of terror, because to look the other way gives terrorists the chance to regroup and recruit and prepare." And "all nations that fight terror as if the lives of their own people depend on it" will win the judgment of history.

The most promising thing about U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's remarks is that unlike the French (or the Democratic presidential candidates, for that matter), he acknowledges the real and serious reasons that the United States refused to wait for the U.N. to deal with Iraq:

"Until now, it has been understood that when states go beyond (self-defense) and decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations," Kofi Annan warned. "Now some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an armed attack with weapons of mass destruction could be launched any time without warning or by a clandestine group. ... It is not enough to denounce unilateralism unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some states feel uniquely vulnerable, since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral actions. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action."

A noble sentiment. Myself, I feel safer counting on the president of the United States to defend us. Don't you?