Every Man A Superpower

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I WENT to Jersey City for a little tour of the future. I visited the seedy rental apartment where the World Trade Center bombing terrorists had conspired, and the public phone where they made their incriminating calls abroad. Of course I couldn't miss the Ryder-truck van lot. If one of the accomplices hadn't been stupid enough to return there after the blast--the bomb had been concealed in a rental--to claim his security deposit, no one would have been caught. We never would have had that vivid mental image of Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted last week, standing at dusk on the Jersey City waterfront on Feb. 26, 1993, watching in disappointment as the 110-story smoke-filled towers failed to crash down upon each other and kill 250,000 people.

Saddam's future begs the larger question of how we confront a world of hundreds of Saddam wanna-bes, each with his own arsenal. ""Unlike the relative calm of superpower rivalries, you don't have the constraints you used to,'' says Jerrold Post of George Washington University. ""Weapons of mass destruction become the great equalizers'' in power relationships.

Think of it this way: big, strong countries with the heft of the United States are like mainframe computers. Their powers of control are weakening. Decentralized authority--so exhilarating in cyberspace--is terrifying in the world of weapons. Just as an individual with a laptop now has as much computing power as a big company, individuals with access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have as much power to kill as most nations. And just as the mainframe is vulnerable to hackers, the nation-state is now prey to every disgruntled former chemistry student with a large closet, which is all the space you need to mix deadly chemical weapons.

For generations, one man could change history with a well-timed assassination. But until recently we've never seen a time when one person or small group could wreak mass destruction (i.e., tens of thousands) without possessing at least some political power. It's only with the end of the cold war that the command and control of WMD by governments has been breached. The international black market rules. What this means is that starving Russian scientists and religious fanatics with some science background can suddenly hold the balance of power. It's a paradox. Nationalism seems as strong as ever; it's cited regularly as the motive for terrorism. But nation-states and their international alliances are a lot less formidable when they lose their monopoly on destruction.

So clearly it's in our national interest to enforce what's left of our monopoly for as long as we can. Hence the inspection teams in Iraq. The West has the lion's share of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and we in the United States (but not the rest of the old alliance) want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, this is like an oil cartel in a world where everyone can drill in the backyard. It can't last, and it leaves us with little more than a stopgap deterrence policy. The State Department essentially admits as much. In guidelines issued this month, State officials, arguing that the ""most direct and serious'' threat to U.S. security comes from WMD, offered some ""assumptions'' about U.S. foreign policy. One of them: ""When the United States cannot fully deny to hostile states the technology for WMD, it can retard the rate at which advanced technologies appear in their arsenals or deter their use.''

In other words, the best we may ever be able to hope to do is retard the progress of the Saddams of the world. They prob-ably can't be stopped or even contained, only slowed down. ""Retardation'' may sound like a lame foreign policy, but it may be the only one we have for a long, long time. It's enough to make you wonder if we need to be building bridges to the 21st century or stockpiling gas masks to survive it. Prediction: our collective psychological makeup will increasingly resemble that of 1950s cold-war America and today's Israel--defiance, denial and a strong undercurrent of justifiable fear.

How to retard Saddam Hussein? It's a tough call. If President Clinton acts too forcefully, he risks escalation. If he appeases, he risks escalation. Whatever else John Kennedy did during his presidency, he walked that line with impressive skill during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. ""The Kennedy Tapes,'' a newly released collection of his conversations during that time, shows even centrist advisers and senators putting tremendous pressure on Kennedy to use airstrikes against Cuba. He chose the naval blockade instead. After the fall of communism, Russian officials recalled that airstrikes would have left Nikita Khruschev no choice but to launch nuclear missiles.

On one hand, the stakes for Clinton are much lower. Saddam does not have nuclear missiles yet. A few angry Arab countries protesting American imperialism isn't so serious. But there is a real risk that Saddam could counterattack with poison gas released from a truck or canister somewhere in the United States. If Clinton provokes that attack with bombings that fail to nail Saddam personally, the president and nation will pay a big price. On the other hand, if we ignore Saddam, we open ourselves up to charges that the United States is letting the gulf-war loser set the terms of his own defeat. An appeased Saddam will make much more trouble later.

So the president needs a measured response. There are no good options--only less bad ones. JFK talked about a ""long twilight struggle'' against communism. That image again--of Ramzi Yousef standing in the twilight, watching his handiwork. The struggle against terrorists and kooks and their fellow travelers will extend well into daybreak.