Holiday from history
By Charles Krauthammer, February 14, 2003
The domestic terror alert jumps to 9/11 levels. Heathrow Airport is ringed by
tanks. Duct tape and plastic sheeting disappear from Washington store shelves.
Osama bin Laden resurfaces. North Korea reopens its plutonium processing
plant and threatens preemptive attack. The Second Gulf War is about to begin.
This is not the Apocalypse. But it is excellent preparation for it. You don’t get
to a place like this overnight. It takes at least, oh, a decade. We are now paying
the wages of the 1990s, our holiday from history. During that decade, every
major challenge to America was deferred. The chief aim of the Clinton
administration was to make sure that nothing terrible happened on its watch.
Accordingly, every can was kicked down the road:
- Iraq: Saddam Hussein continued defying the world and building his
arsenal, even as the United States acquiesced to the progressive weakening of
U.N. sanctions and then to the expulsion of all weapons inspectors.
- North Korea: When it threatened to go nuclear in 1993, Clinton managed
to put off the reckoning with an agreement to freeze Pyongyang’s program. The
agreement — surprise! — was a fraud. All the time, the North Koreans were
clandestinely enriching uranium. They are now in full nuclear breakout.
- Terrorism: The first World Trade Center attack occurred in 1993, followed
by the blowing up of two embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole.
Treating terrorism as a problem of law enforcement, Clinton dispatched the FBI
— and the odd cruise missile to ostentatiously kick up some desert sand. Bin
Laden was offered up by Sudan in 1996. We turned him away for lack of legal
That is how one acts on holiday: Mortal enemies are dealt with not as
combatants but as defendants. Clinton flattered himself as looking beyond such
mundane problems to a grander transnational vision (global warming, migration
and the like), while dispatching American military might to quell “teacup wars”
in places such as Bosnia.
On June 19, 2000, the Clinton administration solved the rogue-state
problem by abolishing the term and replacing it with “states of concern.”
Unconcerned, the rogues prospered, arming and girding themselves for big wars.
Which are now upon us. On Sept. 11, 2001, the cozy illusions and stupid
pretensions died. We now recognize the central problem of the 21st century:
the conjunction of terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction.
True, weapons of mass destruction are not new. What is new is that the
knowledge required to make them is no longer esoteric. Anyone with a
reasonable education in modern physics, chemistry or biology can brew them.
Doomsday has been democratized.
There is no avoiding the danger any longer. Last year President Bush’s
axis-of-evil speech was met with eye-rolling disdain by the sophisticates. One
year later the warning has been vindicated in all its parts. Even the United
Nations says Iraq must be disarmed.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has just (politely) declared
North Korea a nuclear outlaw. Iran has announced plans to mine uranium and
reprocess spent nuclear fuel; we have recently discovered two secret Iranian
We are in a race against time. Once such hostile states establish arsenals, we
become self-deterred and they become invulnerable. North Korea may already
have crossed that threshold.
There is a real question whether we can win the race. Year One of the new era,
2002, passed rather peaceably. Year Two will not: 2003 could be as
cataclysmic as 1914 or 1939.
Carl Sagan invented a famous formula for calculating the probability of
intelligent life in the universe. Estimate the number of planets in the universe
and calculate the tiny fraction that might support life and that have had enough
evolution to produce intelligence. He prudently added one other factor,
however: the odds of extinction.
The existence of intelligent life depends not just on creation but on
continuity. What is the probability that a civilization will not destroy itself once
its very intelligence grants it the means of self-destruction?
This planet has been around for 4 billion years, intelligent life for perhaps
200,000, weapons of mass destruction for less than 100. A hundred — in the
eye of the universe, less than a blink. And yet we already find ourselves on the
brink. What are the odds that our species will manage to contain this awful
knowledge without self-destruction — not for a billion years or a million or even
a thousand, but just through the lifetime of our children?
Those are the stakes today. Before our eyes, in a flash, politics has gone
cosmic. The question before us is very large and very simple: Can — and will —
the civilized part of humanity disarm the barbarians who would use the ultimate
knowledge for the ultimate destruction? Within months, we will have a good
idea whether the answer is yes or no.