Peter Scoblic: Hmmm, nuclear terrorism…


I spent 6,000 words last week in search of an explanation for the Bush administration’s atrociously lax behavior toward nuclear proliferation, and I concluded that its conservative ideology — with its insistent focus on the character, rather than the capability, of states — was the culprit. But perhaps I gave too much weight to the role of ideas in the Bush White House. Bob Joseph, John Bolton’s replacement as the nation’s top arms control official, recently gave a simpler explanation for the administration’s flippancy: they just now realized that nuclear terrorism is a problem.
Here are comments Joseph made last Friday on the merger of the State Department’s Arms Control and Nonproliferation bureaus, which, among other things, will entail the creation of a WMD terrorism office:

Let me just elaborate a bit on the WMD Terrorism Office. When I was on the National Security Council staff during the first four years, during the first term of the Administration, it occurred to me during the campaign that there was one point of agreement between the President and Senator Kerry. They disagreed on just about everything; they agreed on one thing. And that one thing was the preeminent threat we face as a nation is a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. I don’t know if you remember that debate, but it was one point of consensus. It seems like a pretty important point.
I was on the National Security Council staff at that time. I just decided to do an assessment of how well we were doing in addressing that threat. And I did a personal assessment and that personal assessment led me to believe that we could do a lot more interagency and agency-by-agency. And when I came to the State Department, I looked to see what contribution we were making and what contribution we possibly could make in this critically important area. And I found that not unlike the situation more generally, there were a number of very important initiatives that we were undertaking with others, whether it’s port security or detection capabilities, but that we lacked a strategic approach. We were working consequence management issues, all very important capabilities, working with allies, but we lacked a strategic approach.
And what this new office will do is it will provide a strategic approach to dealing with the preeminent threat. It will provide the building blocks for creating a defense in-depth against WMD terrorism, a layered defense because we truly have to work with our friends and our allies in the international community more broadly. It’s a very complex threat. It’s as complex as it is dangerous. And it’s these types of new initiatives that you’ll see coming out of this reorganization.

I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry (or duck and cover). Apparently we have not had a strategic approach to the “preeminent threat” facing the country for four years after the September 11 attacks. Can you picture Joseph — at the time the NSC’s senior director for proliferation strategy, counterproliferation and homeland defense — watching the debate, which of course took place in late 2004, and saying to himself, “Hmmm, nuclear terrorism, that’s something we should look into”? And people say you don’t learn anything from presidential debates…
Peter Scoblic