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[Published in Slate, Sept. 13, 2001]

How Missile Defense Would Help Terrorists
By Robert Wright

Some critics of President Bush's missile-defense plan have already claimed a measure of vindication in Tuesday's attack on the United States. Their logic is plausible as far as it goes: They've long been saying that massive destruction, when it comes, won't come via ballistic missile, and sure enough it didn't. But by ending their argument there, they're selling themselves short. Missile defense won't just fail to stop the next big terrorist attack. It could hasten the next attack and make it literally 100 times as lethal as Tuesday's.

The question of whether terrorists might detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city has always boiled down to two questions: 1) Are there groups with significant resources and organizational skills that want to kill vast numbers of Americans? 2) How easy would it be for such a group to get ahold of the requisite materials? Tuesday gave us the grim answer to the first question. The answer to the second question is more elusive, but this much is clear: The more nuclear materials there are floating around beyond American control, the worse things look. And missile defense would probably raise that amount.

Both Russia and China have made noises about escalating their nuclear programs in response to missile defense. In the case of Russia, the threat rings hollow for fiscal reasons, but China has the resources to deliver. In fact, it is modernizing its arsenal in any event and can well afford to accelerate and expand the program in response to missile defense. And most experts agree that, within the framework of nuclear deterrence, doing so would be rational. In the more distant future, rapid growth in the Chinese arsenal could spur growth in India's arsenal, which could spur growth in Pakistan's arsenal, which could spur more growth in India's arsenal, and so on—with each iteration upping the chances of a little plutonium or uranium straying into the hands of terrorists.

The Bush administration seems to think that provoking the production of weapons-grade materials beyond America's borders is a fair price to pay for missile defense. Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that the administration, to get Chinese acquiescence in the missile-defense program, had decided not to oppose China's nuclear modernization plans. This story, based on background reporting, was followed by hasty on-the-record qualifications and quasi-denials—whose upshot, as I read them, was to confirm the essential accuracy of the Times report.

The near indifference of many missile-defense boosters to nuclear proliferation has long been painfully clear. A few months ago, Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, in a column endorsing missile defense and the larger Bush vision that it's part of, celebrated the president's aversion to arms-control treaties. "Nor does the Bush administration fear an 'arms race.' If the Russians react to our doctrine by wasting billions building nukes that will only make the rubble bounce, let them." In the wake of what happened Tuesday, is Krauthammer still sanguine about the prospect of weapons-grade plutonium being produced not terribly far from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, in factories run by underpaid bureaucrats? In any event, it's too late for him to retract his admission that Bush's policy could well lead to that.

The problem goes beyond missile defense. Months ago President Bush decided to cut by $100 million the Clinton administration's budget for a program designed to halt the spread of Russian nuclear materials. (The program does need reforming, but it sure doesn't need shrinking.) Bush also shrank a program designed to keep Russian nuclear scientists gainfully employed, so they won't need subsidies from Osama Bin Laden et. al.

Whenever you point out that a nuke is much more likely to enter the United States on a barge floating up the Hudson or a van crossing the Rio Grande than on a missile, missile-defense backers reply that we're already working on that problem. Yes, we are. But the point is that our allocation of resources is grossly unbalanced. The president plans to spend a massive amount of money to thwart incoming nuclear missiles, and less money to thwart nukes snuck across the border, a threat that everybody—everybody—considers more likely than a missile attack.

How exactly do we correct the imbalance? In theory, you should shift resources from missile defense to the fight against massively lethal terrorism until you're getting the same amount of protection per dollar from the two kinds of expenditure. Of course, we can't precisely quantify the "amount of protection" we get from each dollar spent to inhibit the spread of nuclear materials and other ingredients of mass murder. But the more likely these ingredients are to be acquired and used by terrorists, the more protection we're buying by slowing their spread. It's hard to reflect on what happened Tuesday without acknowledging that a major shift of resources is in order.

Still, some will manage. They'll argue—as if financial resources were infinite—that we can afford to keep the unprecedentedly expensive missile-defense program on track and still do more to cut the chances of a massive terrorist attack. But once you realize that ending or slowing the missile-defense program would itself cut the chances of such an attack—by cutting the world's incentive to produce nuclear materials—this argument starts to show signs of serious strain.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.