‘Iran Conducts Nuclear Test.”
Could we see such a headline in 2011? Yes, and America’s leaders must prepare for this and similar possibilities, however unlikely they now seem.
Too often, our leaders are caught by surprise because they refused to consider the unthinkable. This has led to some spectacular intelligence and policy failures. For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington cut its intelligence budget dramatically. Many Americans believed what Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History and the Last Man: that the triumph of democracy and human rights was inevitable. Our leaders ignored the possibility that new threats could emerge, such as al-Qaeda, which launched attacks on the U.S. starting in the 1990s.
As former secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff put it at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies event not long ago, America is bad at addressing threats that haven’t appeared on television. Sadly, like our intelligence community, our leadership is often reactive and risk-averse; it suffers from groupthink and refuses to contemplate alternative points of view. Our lack of foresight makes us an easy target. But one can predict with 100 percent certainty that America will face dangerous and unexpected foreign-policy challenges in 2011.
As a leader on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I had a unique perspective on the evolving security threats against the United States. They can be summed up in a few words: Iran, cyberwarfare, homegrown terrorism, and natural resources. In these areas, what threats should we be considering that we are not?
Iran. The consensus opinion is that Tehran is more than twelve months away from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons. Most experts predict that it is at least three years away. But how many times have Iran and others taken the world by surprise? Recently, China unveiled a prototype of what appeared to be a fifth-generation stealth fighter, proving it was much further along in developing such a fighter than anyone believed. Though it has far fewer resources and capabilities than China, Iran could also surprise us. We know the Iranians are committed to gaining this capability. What would happen if Tehran tested a nuclear weapon in 2011?
Cyberwarfare. The collection, manipulation, and protection of massive quantities of electronic data are both the threat and the opportunity of the future. Will a headline screaming, “Cyber Attack Shuts Down Power Grid — 40 Million Affected” appear in 2011?
I cannot overemphasize the devastation such an attack could wreak on our economy and our national security. The 9/11 Commission criticized America’s leaders for a lack of creativity in anticipating the types of attacks that America ultimately faced. I fear that in the aftermath of a cyber attack, America’s leaders would again face this criticism. The recent WikiLeaks debacle may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. It is an unmistakable early warning sign of the threats we face from cyberwarfare.
Homegrown Terrorism. In only eight months, America will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the horrendous attacks of 9/11. After the brutal murders at Fort Hood and the numerous failed attacks against the homeland during 2010, will a homegrown terrorist be Time magazine’s 2011 “Person of the Year”? Will the next Christmas Day bomber or Times Square bomber succeed? Is America prepared for the continuation and potential rise in homegrown terrorism?
Natural Resources. With gas prices threatening to reach $5 a gallon this summer, China restricting access to rare earth metal reserves, and Russia once again using its natural-gas supplies to influence its European neighbors’ foreign policy, what are we doing to prepare for the possibility that new types of trade cartels will subject the world to economic blackmail? What if countries use their natural resources as economic weapons in 2011?
In a complex and rapidly changing world, America’s leaders need to lean forward on potential national-security threats. Being prepared means planning for the unexpected. Our leaders need to create an environment that embraces risk-taking, rewards unconventional thinking and rejects group-think.
This year, we will face significant and unexpected new threats. Let’s not be caught by surprise.
— Pete Hoekstra, a former Michigan congressman, served as chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now president of Hoekstra Global Services, a national-security consulting firm.