The day after: Mushroom clouds in our future?

GRAHAM Allison jauntily refers to North Korea as ‘Missiles-R-Us’. But this brilliant professor is not just a joker — the founding dean of the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government is a leading expert on nuclear terrorism. And he believes the joke is on us.


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Published: Sat 18 Dec 2004, 11:20 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:57 AM

Take the North Korean threat. He says: This Asian ‘economic basket case’ has no way to survive, as long as present conditions remain the same, except by selling counterfeit money, illegal drugs and, at some point, should it get desperate enough, missiles and perhaps even nuclear materials.

Everyone knows that Washington is also alarmed about the nuclear ambitions of Iran, but because the Bush administration sold the world and the American people an overly alarmist intelligence assessment about Iraq’s mass-destruction capabilities, no one is ready to march towards Teheran, much less Pyongyang. This administration has no intelligence credibility.

Allison, in fact, is far less worried about those two alleged nuclear powers using nukes than exporting them to terrorists who don’t have a nation to lose from massive US retaliation. In presenting the findings contained in his important new book, ‘Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe’, at a UCLA seminar here recently, he reminds us of Osama bin Laden’s stated objective: to kill four million people in retaliation for alleged US and Jewish aggression against Muslims.

The ravings of a madman? Surely. But Bin Laden’s ambition is all too realisable. But how? Informs the professor, “follow the golf clubs ... follow the drugs.” It’s easy — especially since only a small fraction of air cargo on passenger and cargo flights is ever checked, the US border sports more holes than ‘Swiss cheese’, says Allison, and a nuclear weapon set off in Times Square during the noon rush (perhaps from one of the missing Russian suitcase bombs) could snuff out up to a million lives in one blinding nightmare.

The Harvard don sincerely believes that this ugly moment of truth will take place before too long. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when,” he quotes four-star Gen. Eugene Habiger as saying. There is simply too much loose nuclear material out in the world floating in a global ocean of hatred and insanity.

Allison’s policy antidote is common-sensical enough. All the loose nukes have to be located and recalled; all new potential nuclear capabilities have to be capped; no new nuclear states can be permitted to emerge.

But for such an obvious solution to be effective, America and its friends would have to work collectively. That’s not possible with the United States bogged down in Iraq, as it once was in Southeast Asia 50 years ago. It can’t sufficiently focus on the overriding nuclear terrorism while its young men and women are being shot up day after day in Iraq; it can’t rally universal support with half the world against the war and the other half not so gung-ho about it. And it can’t woo enough of the moderate Muslim world into an intense anti-nuclear-terror effort when it’s bombing, killing and maiming countless innocent Muslims and Arabs in Iraq.

There are many good reasons to begin now the withdrawal of US troops from this hopeless disaster. But surely the soundest, from a national security perspective, is that the enormous costly Iraq war does not begin to address our chief national-security threat: the potential incineration of perhaps millions of Americans in a nuclear 9/11 revisited.

Is Allison just another academic alarmist? Listening to him does scare you to death, but the scary part is the potency of the message, not the psychology of the messenger. Harvard’s Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and Director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs is a former assistant secretary of defence for policy and plans, where he coordinated strategy and policy toward Russia, Ukraine, and other states of the former Soviet Union (from which much fissionable material leaked). He is deeply respected and has written perhaps the most penetrating and thorough book on the frightening Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

His latest book deserves to be a best seller. Perhaps someone at the White House will read it, take it to heart, persuade the president to extricate our country from Vietnam — sorry, Iraq — and throw everything we have at the nuclear terrorism issue before it blows up in our face. Why let Bin Laden score big-time yet again?

©Tom Plate

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