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The Infectious Search for a New Villain

After hunting in vain for a post-Soviet threat, where will the U.S. national security find a new enemy?

June 29, 2000

After hunting in vain for a post-Soviet threat, where will the U.S. national security find a new enemy?

The past ten years have been a difficult time for defense strategists in the West. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the disempowerment of Russia, they often have to stretch a point to stylize the worlds “rogue” nations — the Iraqs, North Koreas and Libyas — into threats capable of destabilizing the United States and its democratic allies. And even the U.S. State Department has opted recently to re-christen rogue nations as “states of concern,” an altogether less fear-inspiring designation.

Following U.S. military involvement in Iraq, the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center in 1993 and widespread reports of chemical weapons programs in the so-called states of concern, there had been real fear among Americans that their cities could be the targets of biological terrorism.

But while U.S. forces have not vanquished Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, they have at least curtailed his weapons programs. Then, in early June, North Koreas Kim Jong Il apparently decided to warm up relations with South Korea and western powers. As these things have happened, the fear of biological weaponry has diminished.

No, the threat that the U.S. national security community seems to be pinning its hopes on is — in one respect, at least — much, much smaller. It is, in fact, microscopic. As revealed in recent statements by senior Clinton administration officials, the great danger today is from infectious diseases.

Never before, not even when the country was being ravaged by influenza and smallpox epidemics in the early part of the 20th century, has the United States linked infectious diseases with security issues. But that is exactly what happened in April, when the Clinton administration formally designated AIDS as a threat to national security.

And this kind of thinking was firmly supported — and even broadened — by a recent report from the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute at the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The CSIS, which has a strong rapport with the defense establishment, paints a gloomy picture of the possible impacts of infectious diseases on national security.

While pointing out the very real state of emergency caused by AIDS in many developing countries, the report goes so far as to label a relatively confined outbreak of West Nile fever in an American city as a top concern of analysts pondering global health.” The West Nile virus, too, is “a threat to U.S. security.”

Cynics might claim that the elevation of viruses and bacteria into the position once occupied by communism and terrorist states is a last-ditch effort by the national security community to preserve big budgets of yesteryear for military and intelligence agencies. (Of course, by that logic, the British military certainly missed a great opportunity a few years ago to declare war on mad cow disease.)

No, more likely, it is simply a sign that times have changed — and the scholars of national security and military issues are trying as hard as the politicians and the military to find new villains to focus on.

Nevertheless, when it comes time to fight these wars, it might be helpful to remember that when the United States overcame the health scourges of the last century, it was a highly motivated and well-funded medical community that won the battles. Back then, the military had other wars to fight.