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October 28, 2004

One on One: Janne Nolan

Pitt security expert talks about weapons of mass destruction, politics & the future.

Long before Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) became a household term, GSPIA professor Janne Nolan was writing about them. Nolan, who jointed the Pitt faculty this year and immediately became active in the University’s Ridgway Center, has been exploring national security issues for more than 20 years, serving on a number of panels advising the federal government on security issues such as the National Defense Panel, the Defense Policy Board, the Commission on Intelligence Assessment of Ballistic Missile Threats and the Presidential Advisory Board on Arms and Technology Proliferation Policy. She has penned such titles as “An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Politics After the Cold War” and “Global Engagement: Security and Cooperation in the 21st Century.”

Some of Nolan’s earlier studies examined how small countries acquired ballistic missiles. In 1991 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, she said: “Saddam’s weapons were cobbled together from pieces coming from throughout the world. It was a wake up call.” The ability for developing nations to secure, then deploy weapons has dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape. And as the presidential election frenzy is bombarding the American public with polarized descriptions of WMD use and national security, Nolan sat down with University Times writer Mary Ann Thomas to discuss her views on weapons, politics and the future.

University Times: Since the time when you co-wrote the report “Combating Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” for the U.S. Congress in 1999, where is WMD research going these days?

Nolan: The issue of WMD is really a very old issue with countries all over the world working to develop and increasingly to sell weapons of all varieties. When you talk about WMDs currently, there’s confusion because there are three kinds of weapons: nuclear weapons, chemical weapons (certainly not good weapons but less destructive) and biological weapons (a long category of possible lethal agents). So the issue is really about countries we call developing countries or third-world countries slowly acquiring the technical means to make weapons and use them, which has been happening for several decades. But we really didn’t wake up to the problem until the first Gulf War in 1991. Everyone was pretty focused on the U.S.-Soviet rivalry and to the majority of people in Washington, the idea that a country like Iraq could actually have put together its own missiles with the ability to launch those missiles into Israel in 1991 took the world by storm. It was a shock. So we’re just beginning now, 12 years later, to appreciate the complexity of this phenomenon of proliferation of weapon technology.

One of the greatest fears of the American public is that a terrorist group will secure a nuclear weapon and just hit whatever they can in the United States. How real is that threat?

The greatest concern is the relative availability of fissile material, which you need to make the weapon. Because of the difficulties of the Soviet Union after the collapse, it left behind facilities full of material that can be used for weapons. We have been working with the Russians to secure this material. But the investment in this effort is nowhere near the level of investment we’ve put towards other things: Out of the $420 billion annual defense budget, we still spend less than $1 billion for programs that would help better secure the facilities where material could be stolen or sold.

With the presidential election exceedingly heated and issues partisan and polarized, what is happening in Washington in terms of scholars, public servants and public representatives dealing with security issues?

There are two answers to your question. The good news is that there are very solid research institutes who do a lot of the support work that the government can’t do or isn’t focused on now. An example is the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which funds programs to dismantle unsafe weapons facilities and to give money and employment to scientists to work on a whole host of programs, which they do on a non-partisan basis.

On the other hand, this is the most polarized environment I’ve ever witnessed after 20-some years in Washington. There are a few pockets of bipartisanship such as the group I’ve belonged to for over 20 years, called the Aspen Strategy Group. And its purpose is bringing people together from both sides of the isle for civilized discourse.

You can see what’s going on in Congress and media. There are debates of extremes and I think our media actually has fueled that a lot because people want the quick, easy answers and there’s not a lot room for analysis or contemplation. TV hates analysis.

Is our foreign policy as polarized as it is depicted in the media and the presidential debates?

In general, this is the meanest campaign I’ve ever seen. And it’s being stoked by fear on both sides. In terms of the question of cooperation and international support, we are in a world where it’s almost impossible for significant security issues to be solved by a single country or only by military means. And we have a lot of precedence for global cooperation that has stuck and we rely on it. We don’t always think about it, but consider the international banking system. There’s a very complex set of international regulations that have to be enforced universally in order for people to transact business. We are stepping up, belatedly, for intelligence sharing, customs enforcements and joint operations for alleged sales of illicit weapons. But we have a long way to go. What happened in the last few years is that the idea of cooperation turned into an ideology instead of a practical solution. The notion that we have to go in alone sounds very stoic, patriotic and American, but it may also be very naive and completely inappropriate. So on the one hand, going in Iraq alone might be appealing to a strong sense of what it is to be American or not be bogged down by allies who get in our way. But ultimately, it may not be the way to approach it. In a caricature treatment of issues in the presidential debates, what you heard really doesn’t serve the issue there: How do we build better, functioning institutions that actually represent our interests.

Looking at the future, what are some of the important issues we have to deal with on an international level in terms of terrorism and national security?

The most important issue for all of us is working to restore the status of the United States as a country that works well with its allies and develops legitimate responses to security challenges and other things that can be supported by a much larger network of states. George Bush Sr. was extremely good at what’s called the “heavy lifting” of foreign policy — really working with other leaders to get coalitions built. He serves as a very good model for leadership. It’s not about partisanship at all.

A pre-emptive military strategy will only take you so far. There are times when a pre-emptive military strategy is perfectly legitimate. But it doesn’t answer three-fourths of the question: What are we going to do after we defeat a country? Our soldiers are being asked to set up tribunal court systems, to secure areas around schools — they weren’t trained for this. They weren’t expected to be there. We can’t be involved with this kind of activity without much more serious training.

What about our position in Iraq and the attraction of terrorists to that country now?

It’s very difficult for the people on the ground to make a distinction between legitimate opposition and criminals. The kidnappings, the beheadings – we need to work with people in Iraq to create those distinctions and help them to be protected from these criminals. We tend to treat the whole thing as insurgents, terrorists. We need to make a clear distinction between Iraqis who don’t like the U.S.-backed government and the terrorists who come into the country. Unfortunately, wars of the future will involve chaos; there is an absence of order and a dedicated enemy that we understand.

You could talk about your new book project: “Defending the Status Quo: Discourse and Dissent in American Security.”

This research is about what happens in national security policy when discourse among professionals is constrained. It’s looking at what happens to individuals who have basic information and judgments that challenge conventional wisdom, core concepts and perceptions.

Typically the response is to send them away. The idea in this book is that you can’t have a democracy, you can’t have a good policy unless you have a lot of information and a lot of discussion.

Is that happening now?

I think the 9-11 Commission, among other things, has been about how there wasn’t the tolerance in the system for, not even opposing views, but alternative views challenging the system. By no means was there any kind of a discourse that the founding fathers thought was necessary to make good decisions.

What are your observations about security issues, discourse and openness?

We have enormous expertise in our intelligence agencies, state department and the career professional people in the military. Unfortunately, there’s been a tendency for politicization of leadership. It’s often the case that leaders are too busy, they have so many other things to do. And there’s a certain shoot-the-messenger syndrome in some of these situations. We have many incidences where evidence in intelligence was overlooked because it didn’t fit with the consensus of the time. I’m working on a study looking at the struggle of intelligence failures. The United States was not anticipating a revolution in Iran in 1970s. And it turns out there was a lot of intelligence on it but it didn’t fit the conviction that we needed a Shah of Iran.

There are some significant cases where we said we didn’t have the intelligence. But we did. It’s not so much a problem of the level of leadership as it is the agencies that cut across so many different lines. It’s a very antiquated system. It’s what the 9-11 Commission talked about.

What are the greatest threats to security here in the United States?

It’s important to remember that the United States has been very vulnerable for decades — far more so, when you count the numbers of weapons that were dedicated to attack this country during the Cold War. For reasons I don’t understand, the Cold War is considered a better time by the public than this confusing time. I think that’s wrong. I think it was a very dangerous time. We had thousands of nuclear weapons targeted on our territory and if they had arrived with accuracy, there would have been unimaginable destructiveness. We’ve come out of that period. Now Russia is a partner. The threat of the unknown is understandable but we still need to scale these new threats against what we have just survived.

I agree with the assessment that a terrorist group with a nuclear device is by far the most destructive, frightening prospect. The highest order threat is very hard to know. It’s not that easy to construct, let alone transport, a nuclear device into an American city. We’re still trying to define the motivations of various terrorist groups and their most likely next step. And you don’t need nuclear weapons to really upset the social order of this country.

Any historical observations on Sept. 11?

During the Cold War, Russia never got to us. If you go back to media film footage during the 1950s, you’d see many parallels with today in getting Americans to become aware of internal infiltration. What our government did in the 1950s was show people that there are things you could do against a nuclear attack — build a bomb shelter. Today we have this terror warning and it’s not encouraging people to feel confident.

There’s a whole part of the current situation that has to do with getting Americans to rally in a way that supports government policy. During the Cold War, we depicted the Soviet Union as a state that had no stakes in international order, was suicidal in its own way and irrational. Soviets didn’t care about dying, causing death – descriptions like many of the caricatures we hear now about Islamic terrorists. I think it’s important to keep a little distance from nightmarish scenarios and try to understand the scale of what we’re talking about.

What is the security community studying now?

The No. 1 challenge is how to prepare the United States for any kind of major disruption. Nuclear attack is on a scale all to itself. But what about a chemical or biological agent attack? We are now dealing with a situation where we cannot vaccinate against the flu. In Washington, the town shuts down if there’s an inch of snow. We do not have the preparations for a biomedical response. We’re working across bureaucracies; we are so far behind in being prepared for a serious national emergency. This is very hard work and unglamorous work that requires sustained attention from people who are very dedicated and it’s not in the headlines. It doesn’t have an alluring hi-tech appeal. It’s about getting doctors, stockpiles of medicines. It’s about drawing up evacuation plans and police cooperation. And it’s about breaking barriors between regional and federal governments.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 5

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