A reader just pointed


A reader just pointed me to a post Mickey Kaus wrote yesterday in response to one of mine the day previous which discussed the speech on national missile defense which Condi Rice was supposed to give on 9/11.

Mickey makes two points. Let me respond to both.

First he quotes me saying this …

Perhaps it goes without saying, but let’s say it: It was as obvious four years ago as it is today that the most potent threats to America are asymmetric threats, particularly forms of attack that cannot easily be tied back to particular states which we can punish with our conventional military superiority.

And then he responds thus …

Huh? Clearly the Bush administration failed, as WaPo’s Robin Wright puts it, to “take seriously enough the danger from al Qaeda.” (Duh!) They should just admit it. But to say this sort of threat was as obvious four years ago as it was after the World Trade Center was destroyed is idiotic, and reflects a counterproductive, bloggish anti-Bush intellectual overstretch.

Here Mickey seems to both misquote and misunderstand my point. I make no specific mention of al Qaida in that passage. <$Ad$>Nor do I say that the threat of al Qaida was as obvious four years ago as it was on September 12th, 2001.

What I do make is a more general point, which I believe to be correct and is frankly not even that controversial. Namely, that because of America’s overwhelming military superiority to any single rival state or even any potential grouping of rival states, the most potent threats we face are not traditional military to military conflicts but rather asymmetric threats, particularly ones that we would not be able to retaliate against easily with our overwhelming military superiority.

(For some illustration of this point, see this ‘threat spectrum’ analysis graphic produced by the Pentagon in early 2001 — I don’t know the precise date, but pre-9/11 — which I’ve just added to the TPM Document Collection. Note how terrorist attacks fall right in the ‘sweet spot’ where the ‘probability of occurrence’ and ‘threat continuum’ lines meet.)

This is a strategic argument about where our chief vulnerabilities are and where and how our defense resources should be applied — not a question of who saw what Presidential Daily Brief or what was contained in it.

You can agree with this point or disagree with it without misrepresenting it or misunderstanding it.

Next there’s this.

Mickey quotes me saying that Rice’s speech “contained little real discussion of terrorism. The only mentions were swipes at the Clinton administration’s supposed over-emphasis on transnational terrorism at the expense of more important priorities like missile defense.”

Mickey then writes …

Here’s what Rice actually was going to say, according to WaPo:

“‘We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway,’ according to excerpts of the speech provided to The Washington Post. ‘[But] why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open?'”

That’s not exactly downplaying the threat of non-state terrorism, is it?

In fact, I think it is.

As Mickey knows, what Rice was doing here was the speech-writing equivalent of what journalists call a ‘to be sure’ line — a reference to an obvious line of potential disagreement or attack coupled with a preemptive rebuttal of the same. As in, to be sure X, but Y is so much more important, etc.

The context of Rice’s speech also helps elucidate the point.

In its article on Rice’s speech, the Washington Post made quite a lot — and understandably so — of the irony that she was scheduled to give this speech on the day the attacks actually occurred.

But that’s not all that was happening.

Rice and other lead White House officials were in a running debate with missile defense opponents who opposed the policy for reasons quite similar to those I’ve noted above. Namely, that national missile defense was a costly and destabilizing defense against a quite improbable threat. Meanwhile, much more tangible threats like global turmoil, terrorism, loose nukes and the rest would go untended to if we dumped all our resources into missile defense.

This wasn’t just a general debate, but a very specific one Rice was involved in in the days just preceding the attack.

On September 9th, 2001 Rice and then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden appeared on Meet the Press and had just this debate. The following day, September 10th, Biden followed up on that debate with a speech at the National Press Club. Below is a key passage …

Sure, we’ll do all we can to defend ourselves against any threat, nobody denies that, but even the Joint Chiefs says that a strategic nuclear attack is less likely than a regional conflict, a major theater war, terrorist attacks at home or abroad, or any number of other real issues. We’ll have diverted all that money to address the least likely threat, while the real threat comes to this country in the hold of a ship, the belly of a plane, or smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack.

And I ask you, you want to do us damage, are you more likely to send a missile you’re not sure can reach us with a biological or chemical weapon because you don’t have the throw weight to put a nuclear weapon on it and no one’s anticipating that in the near term, with a return address saying, “It came from us, here’s where we are?” Or are you more likely to put somebody with a backpack crossing the border from Vancouver down to Seattle, or coming up the New York Harbor with a rusty old ship with an atom bomb sitting in the hull? Which are you more likely to do? And what defense do we have against those other things?

Watch these hearings we’re about to have. We don’t have, as the testimony showed, a public health infrastructure to deal with the existing pathogens that are around now. We don’t have the investment, the capability to identify or deal with an anthrax attack. We do not have, as Ambassador to Japan now, Howard Baker, and his committee said, the ability to curtail the availability of chemical weapons lying around the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union and Russia, because they don’t know what to do with it.

Rice’s planned speech the following day, in favor of missile defense, was her response to these points. In that context I think Rice’s remarks were very much a ‘to be sure’ line, intended not as a serious discussion of the threat of transnational terrorism or non-state threats generally, but a reference to Biden’s remarks aimed at rebutting them.