In exploring how and why America failed to avert the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, despite a warning system “blinking red,” the 9/11 Commission Report listed, among other things, a failure of imagination. In the multitude of jihadi terrorist attacks since then, there have been horrors enough that there might seem little left to imagine. Monstrous acts have been inflicted on people going about their daily lives in — to name just some of the cities targeted — Madrid, London, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Benghazi, Nairobi, Sydney, Ankara, Copenhagen, Bamako and Paris. Add to this the depravities of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the declared dedication of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, to the annihilation of the democratic Jewish state of Israel.
But is there yet another failure of imagination in the making, on a scale that could dwarf the horrors that have become ritually familiar in the headlines? Is the clock ticking toward some unimaginable midnight of terrorism gone nuclear?
Not that no one has imagined this. Thriller writers from Tom Clancy to Vince Flynn have imagined it in detail, Hollywood has made movies about it, policy experts have held conferences and written papers, government committees have delved into it, and there are government security procedures and agents trying to monitor and thwart any such catastrophe.
But do the folks in the cockpits of western policy take this threat seriously? No such attack has happened to date. In the habitual human calculus that tends to amount to an expectation that somehow it won’t; that however real the danger, the chances of it happening are still a matter of improbable odds. It still belongs to the realm of fiction.
Map the dots, however, and ask yourself if the probabilities are rising.
The world right now is blinking red. While Obama touts the receding tide of war, the containment of ISIS, and the progress toward his dream of a nuclear-weapons-free world, the real world is on a very different course. Reports have been surfacing that ISIS is already in pursuit of chemical and biological weapons. With America in retreat, threats of many kinds have been multiplying so prolifically that there simply isn’t room in the weekly news cycle for all of them — they get their 15 minutes of infamy, and then drop out of the headlines.
That doesn’t mean they have gone away. On the contrary, there is a rising agglomeration of actors hostile to the free world, and while they may not all love each other, they do appear to learn from each other. One act of aggression emboldens those who would commit the next. The common target tends to be the free world, along with those who aspire to join it. Under President Putin, an expansionist and rearming Russia has given asylum to Edward Snowden with his cyber trove, humiliated Obama — repeatedly — over Syria, moved back into the Middle East and snatched Crimea from Ukraine (that was just last year, does anyone remember?). A restive China, with its legions of cyber warriors, is wielding its rising military power to bully its neighbors. Iran, while extending its reach in the Middle East, is pocketing a nuclear deal that effectively blesses its quest for the bomb. And North Korea is honing its missiles and amassing a nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, America’s president continues to abdicate world leadership to the vagaries of luck and that long “arc of history.” Speaking about ISIS on Monday, in a press conference at the G-20 meeting in Antalya, Turkey, Obama declared himself “too busy” for “posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning.” Chiding those who want to “pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do,” he defaulted to his stock formulation: “Our goal, as I’ve said many times, is to degrade and ultimately destroy this barbaric terrorist organization.”
Under the umbrella of that lazy U.S. timeline and half-baked campaign, ISIS has been training recruits, expanding its reach, striking afar, readying more terror to come and setting new benchmarks for barbarism. Have no doubt, its rivals and sympathizers are taking note. The calculus on which the West has based its hopes that none of this rising tide of terrorism will go nuclear is the idea that the logistics of such an attack would be complex, costly and detectable, and that nation states in possession of nuclear materials would consider it potentially suicidal to allow them to reach the hands of terrorists. There is, presumably, a point at which the U.S. would have to retaliate in kind.
But as the American-led world order erodes, as some of the worst rogue states — terror-sponsoring Iran, nuclear-arming North Korea — are de facto allowed to pursue their nuclear ventures, as jihadi terrorists in various combinations either collaborate or compete for monstrous strikes around the globe, surely the probabilities are rising that this old calculus is a decaying guide to what lies ahead.
In writing a column this week on “Bearing Witness to a Nuclear North Korea,” I took a look back at some of the warnings issued by various authorities and experts over the years about the threat of terrorists getting hold of nuclear wares. While I did not make a statistical study of the phenomenon, I do have the strong impression that we were hearing a lot more in the way of warnings back in the 1990s, and just after Sept. 11, 2001, than we are hearing today. If that’s accurate, it is also profoundly troubling, because the avenues and opportunities for such atrocities are on the rise. Just for openers: Pakistan, having announced itself with a nuclear test in 1998, and trafficked in proliferation via its A.Q. Khan network with the likes of North Korea and Iran, maintains a nuclear arsenal on some of the most troubled turf in the world. Iran is within easy distance of the bomb (if, indeed, it has not secretly arrived there already). North Korea — longtime weapons vendor and proliferator to the Middle East — has carried out three nuclear tests since 2006, two of them on Obama’s watch, and is amassing a nuclear arsenal.
There is a trajectory here that might yet be reversed, but that won’t be done merely by way of diplomatic pow-wows, farcical deals, half-hearted strikes and “strategic patience” in the face of rising dangers. It needs strategy, determination, leadership, real red lines genuinely enforced, and a will to win. Otherwise…it is not a comforting thought, but brace for the unimaginable.