Accelerating Threat, Stalled Strategy: A Call to Action on Biological Weapons

Article excerpt

Four years ago, President-elect Barack Obama told the country that "conventional thinking has failed to keep up with new nuclear, chemical, and biological threats."1 Upon taking office, he immediately began working toward ambitious nuclear disarmament goals, making his first major foreign address a vow to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."2

Speaking before a packed public square in Prague, Obama told the world that "there is no end to what the consequences might be-for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.... One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction."3 His words were clear, his argument was compelling, and his administration's actions since then have been consistent.

The past four years have been markedly different with regard to efforts to address the risks from biological weapons. Although it occasionally has repeated the rhetoric acknowledging the severity of the threat, the Obama administration has not shown the same willingness to counter it aggressively. Since entering office, Obama has personally remained quiet on the subject of biological weapons. In a pattern that has repeated itself across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the issue has been entirely eclipsed by the focus on nuclear proliferation. Although a number of structural and cultural factors keep it just below the radar of the country's top policymakers, there are urgent reasons why the second Obama administration should reconsider the current course and pursue a proactive approach to countering the threat of biological weapons.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama spoke clearly and forcefully about the need to address biological weapons. "Just as we must guard against the spread of nuclear terrorism, it's time for a comprehensive effort" to address bioterrorism he told voters in July 2008. "And we know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon- whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply-could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy."4

As the science and technical components behind biological weapons become ever more accessible to states, groups, and even individuals, it is crucial to have a strategy that keeps pace with the evolving risk. Experts, including current and former Obama administration officials, have sounded alarms that biological weapons pose a serious threat to the country, perhaps even greater than the one from nuclear weapons.5

In light of these concerns, U.S. strategy should move beyond responsive policymaking to become forwardthinking and clearly directed from the top. Encouragingly, the Obama administration has shown a willingness to lead on major issues, even when that means going against history. The Prague speech was a dramatic and inspiring departure from the nuclear status quo. Obama now must find the motivation and demonstrate the leadership to tackle the threat from biological weapons similarly and to advance bold ideas into the global debate about the risks these weapons pose.

Muted Beginning

Reinforcing the stakes that Obama recognized when running for office, the National Security Council issued its strategy document on biological weapons in November 2009, the first national strategy document to come out of the Obama administration. It starkly characterizes the impact of an attack on the United States.

The effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within an unprotected population could place at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The unmitigated consequences of such an event could overwhelm our public health capabilities, potentially causing an untold number of deaths. The economic cost could exceed one trillion dollars for each such incident. In addition, there could be significant societal and political consequences that would derive from the incident's direct impact on our way of life and the public's trust in government. …