September 11, 2008
By David Wood
WASHINGTON -- Seven years after al-Qaida took down New York's World Trade Center towers and struck the Pentagon itself, the United States does not have a coherent strategy to deter another attack, according to senior U.S. officials and analysts outside government.
Though America has not suffered a significant foreign attack on its soil since then, both officials and analysts say new approaches to deterrence must be developed - even as they acknowledge that it may be impossible to deter certain types of attacks.
"We continue to work on the deterrence problem ... trying to flesh out the concept," Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the four-star chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in an interview.
The Bush administration reacted to the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people that day, by launching two wars intended to destroy the terrorists and to prevent further attacks.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still rage today, engaging some 174,000 Americans in the fighting. The wars have cost $859 billion so far.
Al-Qaida, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, is thriving in its sanctuaries in Pakistan and actively training and positioning terrorists for new attacks in the West.
For this and a variety of other threats and challenges, the United States needs a clear, powerful and flexible deterrent, strategists say.
"The lack of a strategy ... is a major gap in the overall set of U.S. counterterrorist activities," Lewis A. Dunn, a senior Washington strategist, wrote in a recent paper for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
Inside and outside government, experts like Dunn are working to create such a strategy and the capability for the United States to apply it. It will require an intelligence campaign unprecedented in scope and intrusiveness to penetrate and understand the leadership of rogue states and terrorist groups. And to manipulate their decision-making will require the tight coordination of many agencies in Washington not accustomed to working together.
Making this new deterrence strategy work is likely to be one of the most pressing national security jobs of the next president.
"We have islands of understanding" of how to deter terrorists, said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation and author of a new book on nuclear terrorism. "But there's no champion for it within government. We don't have an organization in government to do it."
Jenkins is quick to add that in some cases deterrence may be unreliable. Terrorists with nuclear weapons are one such case. Al-Qaida is the only terrorist group capable of obtaining and using nuclear weapons, says Jenkins. His advice is not to wait: "Wipe them out now."
During the Cold War, of course, deterrence was an everyday but unnerving reality.
Nine thousand of the American and Soviet missiles that clamped humanity in that nuclear stand-off still hum on alert in their silos in Krasnoyarsk and Wyoming. They may dissuade a major nuclear attack.
But in the two decades since the Cold War ended, neither these weapons nor the United States' unparalleled military power have been effective against lesser challenges.
In that period, for example, al-Qaida destroyed two U.S. embassies. Pakistan and India defied the United States and built nuclear bombs. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The U.S. stood by and wrung its hands while Rwandans slaughtered almost a million of their countrymen. Al-Qaida destroyed two American embassies.
China seized and held an American spy plane. North Korea and Iran thumbed their noses at Washington. President Bush condemned the slaughter of innocents in Darfur to no avail. Just last month Russia invaded Georgia while Washington fumed.
And the study and practice of deterrence declined.
"I am a little concerned because we have maybe taken our eye off that ball over the past 15 years," said Chilton, who commands American nuclear war-fighting forces and strategic conventional forces, in addition to responsibility for war in space and cyberspace.
The brute-force military the United States built for the Cold War is still needed, he said, as long as potential adversaries -most particularly Russia - also have long-range nuclear weapons. But the United States also needs the strategy and the tools to deter, or dissuade, the tin-pot dictators, the rogue states and terrorists.
That, said Chilton, "is probably the most difficult." Doing it successfully will require going "beyond pure military might."
A team under Chilton's direction at Stratcom headquarters in Omaha is working from an internal Pentagon assessment that concluded in December 2006 that the United States requires "a new concept for 'waging' deterrence," a new "national strategy that integrates diplomatic, informational, military and economic powers."
According to this Pentagon concept paper, the point of 21st-century deterrence is to "decisively influence the adversary's decision-making calculus in order to prevent hostile actions against U.S. vital interests."
Terrorists planning an attack inside the United States might not be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation - even if the U.S. could find and target them. But they might be persuaded against an attack if they were convinced they would fail, or that an attack would only stiffen American resolve, or that they'd be destroyed in retaliation.
Another approach is suggested by the current debate inside radical Islamic circles about the morality and effectiveness of causing civilian casualties. The United States, Jenkins suggests, ought to be enlisting disillusioned Jihadis to argue against civilian casualties.
The key to this approach is viewing all adversaries, including rogue states such as North Korea, as well as terrorists, as acting in accordance with their own internal "rational calculus," Dunn argued in his paper.
The trick is to discover that calculus and turn it to America's advantage.
That will also require agile, coordinated responses from a wide range of U.S. agencies. Influence decisions by a terrorist organization, for example, might link the eavesdropping capability of the National Security Agency, agents run by the CIA, the Army's psychological operations units and the State Department's public diplomacy specialists.
Another deterrence operation might involve the Treasury and Commerce departments to freeze international funds and impose other financial sanctions to deter bad behavior.
Deterrence might look a lot like Iraq's Anbar Province, where painstaking U.S. military diplomacy helped bring disaffected former insurgents around to oppose al-Qaida extremists.
It might also include influencing decision-making by threatening adversaries with death.
"For hostile dictators, it is a powerful deterrent to know that America is willing and able to target their regimes directly," President Bush said in a May 28 speech at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
But even the Defense Department document observes that "the adversary may find the threat of U.S. military action non-credible," as al-Qaida apparently did as it pulled off the 1998 embassy bombings and planned for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Could this complicated approach really work? Almost nobody thinks it would be easy.
The new National Defense Strategy issued by the Defense Department in June concludes that in some cases "deterrence may be impossible." It advocates strengthening defenses and "post-attack recovery."
The White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, insisted in a speech last winter that "deterrence can still play a role" against terrorism. But rather than trying to understand and manipulate adversaries' decision-making, he said they could be deterred by the United States acting to build better defenses and threatening those who support or harbor terrorists.