You won’t often read a more chilling opinion piece than today’s commentary by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff. In an editorial titled “An American Hiroshima,” Kristoff cites leading establishment academic, intelligence, and policy authorities (including a former Secretary of Defense) to remind us that the explosion of a nuclear device in a major American city by Islamic terrorists is a very real possibility. The former Secretary of Defense (William Perry) “says,” Kristoff reports, “there is an even chance of a nuclear terror strike within this decade – that is, in the next six years.”
Relying on Harvard Professor Graham Allison,’s “terrifying new book, ‘Nuclear Terrorism,’” Kristoff tells the story of how in October 2001 George W. Bush learned from “a C.I.A. source code-named Dragonfire…that Al Qaeda had obtained a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon and smuggled it into New York City. The C.I.A. found the report plausible,” since “the weapon had supposedly been stolen from Russia, which indeed has many 10-kiloton weapons, Russia is reported to have lost some of its nuclear materials, and Al Qaeda has mounted a determined effort to get or make such a weapon. And the C.I.A. had picked up Al Qaeda chatter about an ‘American Hiroshima.’”
Bush (who I thought looked pretty shook up in October 2001) sent nuclear arms specialists to New York City to rummage around for the bomb. Dick Cheney and other officials were dispatched from the nation’s capital “to ensure the continuity of government in case a weapon exploded in Washington instead.” To “avoid panic,” incidentally, “the White House told no one in New York City, not even Mayor Rudy Giuliani.”
The “Dragonfire” scare was a false alarm, but “similar reports – that Al Qaeda has its hands on a nuclear weapon from the former Soviet Union – have,” Kristoff notes, “regularly surfaced in the intelligence community” and “we do know several troubling things: Al Qaeda negotiated for a $1.5 million purchase of uranium (apparently of South African origin) from a retired Sudanese cabinet minister; its envoys traveled repeatedly to Central Asia to buy weapons-grade nuclear materials; and Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, boasted, ‘We sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other Central Asian states, and they negotiated, and we purchased some suitcase [nuclear] bombs.’”
Dr. Allison has bet Kristoff that “a terrorist nuclear strike will occur somewhere in the world in the next 10 years.” While doubting that such an event will take place, Kristoff is appalled that the very real threat of a nuclear attack on US soil has not elicited more serious attention from the Bush administration, which “has insisted [instead] on tackling the most peripheral elements of the W.M.D. threat, like Iraq, while largely ignoring the central threat, nuclear proliferation.” At the end of his column Kristoff tells us that his next commentary will “explain how we can reduce the risk of an American Hiroshima.”
A “Post-Cold War” Recipe For “Homeland” Catastrophe
To which I say, “yes, of course.” I personally thought we got off easy with 9/11. I have had been expecting something much worse for quite a while before the terrible jetliner attacks. I have long thought that three core and interrelated US policies were combining to create the essential components for a likely “American Hiroshima”: (1) encouraging, aiding, furthering, and reveling in the destruction, humiliation, and bankrupting of state and society in the former Soviet Union, home to thousands of nuclear devices, large numbers of unemployed or under-employed scientists (and teachers, industrial workers and nurses, etc.); (2) the incredibly provocative imperial subjugation and humiliation of the proud, intelligent and armed Islamic world (dramatically accelerated with the decline of the Soviet deterrent to US globalism), home to sophisticated, experienced, spiritually determined, and capable jihad networks and to terror-financing surplus (oil)capital; (3) the advancement of high-speed high volume economic globalization (on the corporate-led model), which overwhelms the capacity of customs, “border patrol” and domestic intelligence and law enforcement officials to protect the American “homeland” from terrorist weapons and personnel.
This is and has been for some time been a three-part recipe for unimaginable catastrophe – the nightmare scenario that led Bush to send nuke-sniffers to NYC and Dick Cheney (who certainly deserves to be the first to be incinerated in any nuclear attack on the US) “out of town” in October 2001 (see below).
You do not have to be a leftist like me to see things this way. I distinctly remember sitting in a bar with a centrist, quasi-Republican friend of mine in the late summer of 2000 (one year before 9/11). Both of us agreed that New York City would be hit – for the three reasons listed above – with a major (we figured nuclear) terror attack within the next year or two.
Survival, Hegemony, and the Goddess of Revenge
Kristoff should consult three sources before writing his next column, “explaining” how we might save ourselves:
(1) CIA Analyst “Anonymous’s” recent book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Brasseys, Inc., 2004), which argues that the biggest threat to American security today is US policymakers’ lockstep, ideologically mandated insistence that al Qaeda and its expanding ilk and progeny are driven by a blind, inchoate, totalitarian hatred of “WHO WE [the US that is] ARE” (supposedly the “land of freedom,” “democracy,” and all that). “Anonymous,” who is no leftist (there’s not many of those working for the CIA), has spent the bulk of his recent professional life closely tracking al Qaeda’s history, leaders, and ideas. Imperial Hubris is dedicated to the proposition that al Qaeda and the considerable support it receives in the mainstream Muslim world – dramatically increased by the invasion of Iraq (a true public relations and recruiting windfall for bin-Laden and his grateful and multiplying supporters and allies) – is all about WHAT WE DO TO AND IN THE MIDDLE EAST. And what we do, “Anonymous” readily acknowledges (CIA affiliation be damned), is function as bloody economic, political, cultural, and military imperialists: stealers and controllers of Arab oil, sustainers of Israel’s racist occupation state, protectors of corrupt Arab regimes, butchers of Muslim innocents, attackers of Islamic shrines and values, and so on.
(2) Noam Chomsky’s book Survival or Hegemony: The American Quest for Global Dominance [The American Empire Project] (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2003) a masterful synthesis on the Bush Doctrine and its venerable and bi-partisan origins. Chomsky argues that “elite” US foreign policy makers routinely privilege the quest for unchallenged global supremacy over the security of the American populace. No, the policymakers don’t want terror attacks on US soil (well, a manageable one before the election would help Bush II in the polls), but preventing such attacks – Chomsky argues – just isn’t a high priority within the statesmen’s Grand Imperial Design for the “post-Cold War era.” Their hegemony trumps our survival by their revolting moral calculus – a choice that can be seen in their decision to push patriotic national security operatives like Richard Clarke and “Anonymous” to the policy margins on their march to an incredibly provocative (to Muslims, including the majority who hated Saddam, and others across the plant) invasion of Iraq.
Chomsky, by the way, notes that one of the Bush II administration’s earliest acts was to cut a program that was helping reduce the risk of loose Russian nukes slipping into terrorists’ hands. Anything to pay for those glorious plutocratic tax cuts to spark us out of that “recession.”
(3) Chalmers’ Johnson’s chastening book The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic [The American Empire Project] (New York, NY: Metropolitan, 2003), which argues that the institutions of militarism and empire have bested rationality and democracy in US foreign policy. Here – in a passage (worth quoting at length) that came back to me after reading Kristoff’s column – is how Johnson concluded a presentation of that book’s thesis in the journal Foreign Policy in Focus last winter (note the line about our impending date with Nemesis, Goddess of Revenge): “In my judgment, American imperialism and militarism are so far advanced and obstacles to its further growth have been so completely neutralized that the decline of the U.S. has already begun. The country is following the path already taken by its erstwhile adversary in the cold war, the former Soviet Union. The U.S.’s refusal to dismantle its own empire of military bases when the menace of the Soviet Union disappeared, combined with its inappropriate response to the blowback of September 11, 2001, makes this decline virtually inevitable……John le CarrÃ©, the novelist most famous for his books on the role of intelligence services in the cold war, writes, ‘America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.’ His view is somewhat more optimistic than mine. If it is just a period of madness, like musth in elephants, we might get over it. The U.S. still has a strong civil society that could, at least in theory, overcome the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. I fear, however, that the U.S. has indeed crossed the Rubicon and that there is no way to restore Constitutional government short of a revolutionary rehabilitation of American democracy. Without root and branch reform, Nemesis awaits. She is the goddess of revenge, the punisher of pride and arrogance, and the United States is on course for a rendezvous with her” (available online at http://www.zmag.org/ content/ showarticle.cfm?SectionID=11&ItemID=4587).
Empire as a Way of Death
Note to the American people: Here’s a sure-fire way to save a major American metropolitan area from an “even chance” of nuclear annihiliation in the next ten years: let’s take our soldiers, bases, guns, ships, helicopters, jets, and other expansionist and racist weaponry out of the Islamic World and stop interacting with the Middle East and the rest of the human community through imperial eyes. Finally getting it that “Empire as a Way of Life” (the title of a book by the interesting New Left revisionist historian William Appleman Williams) is suicidal, let’s take control of our nation’s foreign policy and quit supporting regimes that evoke mass hatred in the Arab world and beyond. Let’s stop advancing a narcissistic and disingenuous concept of “democracy” that is richly tailored to the special interests of our imperial ruling class. The Middle East is not “ours” to patrol and possess and neither is the rest of the world. Let’s learn about and focus on the social, economic, democratic, and many died security needs (including protection from foreign attack but also from poverty, racism, sexism, mass incarceration, homophobia, police-state repression, thought-control and general hierarchy) of our own populace – the people whose general welfare government officials are supposed to serve and reflect. Following our great revolutionary, demcoratic, and constitutional charters, let’s elevate our people’s survival over the “elite’s” regressive, elitist, authoritarian, and reactionary quest for global dominance.
That’s my take on how to deter the nuclear-terrorist threat. I’ll be curious to see Kristoff’s.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher, historian, and anti-empire speaker and writer. His book Empire and Inequality: Writings on America and the World (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) will be out next month. You can reach him at [email protected]