We hear a lot about the menace of Islamic terrorism. In the run-up to the Iraqi invasion, our secretary of state told us about the risk Saddam posed to the entire world. Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich says that Iran is now a threat comparable to Nazi Germany. Occasionally we even hear, from President Bush, no less, about the looming Islamic Caliphate—an evil empire that hasn’t bothered to go through the formality of coming into existence yet.

Ever since the fall of the towers, it’s been clear that Islamic terrorism is a threat. But how big a threat is it? We face all kinds of threats, everything from Alar to an asteroid strike. If we want to figure out what to do, if we hope to determine the best course of action, we have to understand the size of these risks. In order to do so, we have to understand an enemy’s potential to harm us and the probability of such actions taking place.

The immediate threat is that of amorphous terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. They’re obviously quite willing to attack the United States, but their ability to do so is limited. We smashed the core pretty thoroughly when we knocked over the Taliban: the survivors hiding in Pakistan’s Northwest Province can’t do much of anything to us. They were weak before we attacked them, and what’s left is incredibly feeble. We’re talking about a group with at most thousands of active members worldwide, with little money and no industrial base, an organization that doesn’t possess a single tank or fighter plane or long-range missile. Countries that nobody has even heard of—does Burkina Faso ring a bell?—have more raw military power than al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda hasn’t managed to do anything at all in the United States since 9/11. This is not because the Feds have made it impossible for foreigners to sneak into the country—indeed, they positively encourage it. And it is not because our national forests, dams, pipelines, malls, and refineries have been guarded and hardened to the point of invulnerability. We have done very little about that. It’s because al-Qaeda doesn’t have what it takes to continue doing us damage; it’s as if 9/11 was essentially a fluke, and stateless Islamic terrorism is not a very big threat to the country.


Obviously the Bush administration agrees that al-Qaeda is not much of a threat. Watch what they do, not what they say. They’re primarily concerned with countries that produced none of the 9/11 hijackers, had nothing to do with the attack, and had been hostile to the kind of fanatic Sunni fundamentalism that drove those attacks—countries like Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Administration policy—in particular the invasion of Iraq—has obviously exacerbated the threat of Islamic terrorism, for example radicalizing the bombers in London and Madrid. But the White House thinks that’s not terribly important, and as far as strategic threats go, they’re right. As for their concern for homeland security, well, they appointed Bernie Kerik, didn’t they?

Still many Bush loyalists argue that groups like al-Qaeda are dangerous because they may acquire nuclear weapons. How? It’s an important question. They can never make a bomb from scratch: the creation of atomic weapons requires the efforts of thousands of talented engineers and scientists, which they will never have. They could buy one (and a pony), if they had billions and any such weapons were for sale—but none are.

The usual suspects say that some state may eventually give terrorists an atomic bomb. That is, give the crown jewels of its national power into hands it doesn’t control, in much the same way that the great powers at the end of the 19th century were always handing out battleships to anarchists. Except that it’s worse than that: any state that hands out atomic weapons to jihadists seals its doom. And I mean real doom, not just turning its capital into radioactive slag. That’s the least that would happen. I figure that, if attacked, we’d inflict a fate worse than death—turning the nation responsible into animals that remember being men. We could, you know.

The second kind of threat is the rogue Islamic state with nuclear weapons. The usual argument is that many Muslims are willing, even eager, to die for jihad, that the prospect of 72 woefully inexperienced virgins makes the entire Muslim world undeterrable and therefore highly dangerous. Since a handful are willing to die for a cause, the people running Arab/Muslim governments must be too—even if they’ve never shown the slightest sign of it. Again, the focus has been on governments that had nothing to do with 9/11 and in fact opposed fanatical Wahhabi Islam. Somehow such states are considered especially likely to go crazy.

But Muslim rulers don’t act like that. In fact, they never have, not even in the early days of Islamic conquest. People who aren’t afraid to die lose wars: the enemy is always happy to oblige them. Patton knew this.

Muslim states fight wars in much the same way as Europeans have over the past few hundred years, only, of course, far less efficiently. Look at the record. Recall the Iran-Iraq War, back in the 1980s, for example. A nation shows its true nature in war, just as an author reveals himself in his book. Iran fought, all right—clumsily—but it didn’t fight with incredible fanaticism, even back when the fire of the Islamic revolution still burned bright. Many young men marched into murderous fire but no more so than at Gettysburg or the Somme. Iran didn’t take as many casualties (relative to its size) as most of the major players in WWI, not nearly as many as we did in the Civil War. They quit first, which might show common sense but certainly does not show exceptional fanaticism.

As a practical matter, anyone who is all that willing to die for his principles seems to manage to do so early in his career, well before he achieves high office. Most of the people running Iran today could have easily become martyrs under the Shah if they’d felt like it. Somehow they avoided it. In fact, somehow the people who do achieve high office—in every environment—don’t seem to have any principles at all, let alone ones they’re willing to die for. Funny how that works.

Such states, although stronger than a bunch of bandits hiding in caves, are very much weaker than the United States. Iraq was of course no threat to anyone: its armed forces were crumbling, its economy morbid, its weapons of mass destruction imaginary. The administration and most of our political establishment said otherwise, may even have believed otherwise. I’m sure we all wonder what they were thinking (and smoking).

Iran is now at the top of the enemies list, but of course it poses no strategic threat to the United States. Iran’s GNP is 20 to 40 times smaller than that of the U.S., and the Iranians are hardly sophisticated technologists. If they tried hard, if they spent a huge fraction of their GNP on weapons, they might be able to spend 1/30th as much on arms as we do. But they’re not trying hard.

In truth, Iran hasn’t embarked upon any military adventures in years: there is no pattern of aggression and conquest, no frantic military buildup. The war with Iraq a generation ago seems to have used up most of the Iranians’ revolutionary zeal. We do not hear of their “last territorial demands.” In fact, we’re still waiting for the first.

Even when provoked, they’ve been cautious. The Taliban, back in 1998, killed a number of Iranian diplomats along with thousands of fellow Shi’ites. The Iranian government was angry, as any government would have been. The Iranians threatened, they mobilized troops on the Afghan border—but never invaded. I can’t read their minds, but I’d guess that some in their government argued that they couldn’t afford it, others that they might lose, while still others had read their Kipling and couldn’t imagine what they would do with Afghanistan if they owned it. (Interestingly, Condoleezza Rice, back in 2000, seemed to have been unaware that this crisis ever occurred. When she was interviewed by the New York Times, she thought that Iran supported the Taliban. I guess future secretaries of state have better things to do than read.)

The Iranians may be working on nuclear weapons—there is no clear evidence, but it is at least physically possible for them to be doing so, unlike Iraq under sanctions. If they eventually succeed, they’ll have a few bombs without any long-range delivery systems. Not a threat to the United States. And of course, they’re deterred: like any enemy with a return address, any nuclear attack on the U.S. would be answered a hundredfold, leading to the extinction of their nation.

The simplest explanation for the current Iranian nuclear program is that it is an attempt at deterring the U.S. from invading. It is not part of an offensive strategy. Any kind of force projection strategy would require a general conventional military buildup, and no such buildup is underway.

As for the third threat—the looming Islamic Caliphate, the reason we need to stay in Iraq as long as grass grows and waters flow—it’s a bit hard to see how that is supposed to happen in a world in which Arabs exhibit poorer political cohesion than a bucket of scorpions. Look at the numbers: we can’t seem to control Iraq with 140,000 of the best troops in the world, but jihadists are going to conquer it if we leave—with something like 1,000 men whose main talent lies in blowing themselves up. They’re going to do this in spite of the opposition of the Shi’ites, the Kurds, and the Ba’athist plurality of the Sunnis, who together make up 95 percent of the population. And after that, they’ll go on to conquer half the world. Right.

This is undoubtedly the craziest argument for a policy ever put forth by the United States government. The only reason that we’re not bundling Bush off to the booby hatch is that he’s ramped up the insanity gradually: first the Iraqi peril, then the crusade for Arab democracy, now preventing the rebirth of the Caliphate. Manage the segue properly and people get used to all kinds of nonsense.

For some perspective, look back at a real threat. The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons that could reach the U.S. If the Soviets had attacked with all their might, they would have killed almost all of us. I’ve seen projected fallout maps that showed lethal levels everywhere in the continental United States except for one small patch of coastal Oregon, and I’m sure they would have targeted Coos Bay just to be thorough. Russia today still has enough of an arsenal to kill most of us. Maybe we should act as if that’s a bit more important than a wholly imaginary Caliphate?

Or we might look forward. China has four times our population, and its economy is growing far more rapidly than ours since the Chinese invest in manufacturing and infrastructure rather than Arabs. They add more industrial muscle in a few months than Iraq ever had, more in a year than Iran’s total. In the next generation, their GNP is likely to pass that of the U.S. If they decide to contend with us, they’ll be able to. We may see a global struggle more serious than the Cold War against a stronger and saner opponent than the Soviet Union, with proxy wars and arms races.

The administration needs to concentrate on our major strategic problems, not fixate on weak threats. Maybe Condi never told Bush, but size matters.


Gregory Cochran is a physicist and evolutionary biologist.