More furtive enemies threaten US in new century
America will need smarter, more mobile military forces to deal with the threat of rogue nations and terrorists.
WASHINGTON — According to President Clinton, the US has never been more secure from external threats than it is today.
While there may be truth to that State of the Union claim, officials and analysts paint a far more complex picture of national security at the start of the 21st century, in which weapons are more deadly, governments are less stable, and potential enemies are more furtive.
America's overwhelming military and economic strength, in fact, may be the cause of one of its most difficult challenges. Without a balance of power - as there once was with the Soviet Union - there is now a greater sense of anti-American sentiment in the international community, officials say.
"The fact that we are arguably the world's most powerful nation does not bestow invulnerability," said CIA director George Tenet in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Wednesday. "In fact, it may make us a larger target for those who don't share our interests, values, or beliefs."
Such feelings can lead to strikes on US targets at home and abroad, Mr. Tenet says. And it means countries are increasingly likely to try to team up to counter US strength, analysts say.
According to one Pentagon official, there is a growing concern about a "collusion of rogue states," in which countries like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq could share weapons technology.
"We can see signs of that and it's something we are trying to curtail," says the official.
These countries are most likely to strike with long-range missiles, analysts say, which is one of the reasons the Pentagon is working as fast as possible to build a national-missile-defense system.
But the possibility of other nations allying to counter the US may not be limited to just the rogues. Even US allies could act in subtle ways that would hamper Washington's ability to act unilaterally.
Patrick Cronin, a national-security expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, says there are signs, for example, that Russia may try to enhance ties with Germany, and South Korea may drift closer to China.
These associations are more likely to form after interventions like the NATO bombing of Kosovo, a US-led mission that went against the desires of the United Nations. The loudest critics of the bombing were China and Russia.
It's natural there would be opposition after the US acts against international consensus, Mr. Cronin says.
America's status as the lone superpower and the fall of the Soviet Union have created another unexpected threat. As Russia slides downward in international status, it becomes more unstable - and no longer can take care of its own back yard as in Soviet times.
Nuclear weapons stocks are no longer considered secure, prompting the US to commit about $800 million this year to help the Russians prevent the theft, selling, or accidental launch of weapons.
Also, Moscow's insecurity is considered a factor in the war in Chechnya, in which the Russian Army has faced stiff resistance from Chechens linked to Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Tenet warns that fighting in Chechnya, which shows no signs of subsiding, could make the region a training ground for the next generation of extremists.
"Afghanistan was the calling card of the '70s and '80s," he says. "Chechnya will become the calling card of this millennium in terms of where terrorists go and train and act."
And, with new weapons, technology, and information that can be transferred over the Internet, it may be easier now for terrorists to operate, analysts say.
They also have more targets, including computer systems, and can get more money from the sale of illegal narcotics.
According to the CIA, Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile suspected of two terrorist bombings against US embassies in Africa, wants to get chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. And if he does, they could be set off by any number of agents spread throughout the world.
Analysts say one of the keys to national security in today's environment will be adjusting the focus of the military to meet the new threats. Most of the US defense was built on a cold-war model, and Pentagon planners have struggled to make the forces smarter and more mobile.
Also, defense experts say, it will be crucial for the United States to maintain its economic edge, which gives Washington great power to shape other countries and to gain loyalty.
"The real threat to the US would be chaos to the international system," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense. "We need to continue to pursue our economic development - without that a lot of things could unravel."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society