Newt Gingrich's Dubious Risk Management: Bio-Terror Edition

A succession of wars against Islamic countries isn't an efficient way to protect us from dying in a pandemic


For a decade, Newt Gingrich has insisted that the United States isn't fundamentally at war with Al Qaeda, Iraq, or Afghanistan so much as a transnational strain of fascistic Islamism, and that rather than bringing our troops home, as Ron Paul wants to do, or shifting our focus to the Pacific rim, as Jon Huntsman advocates, we need to see ourselves as engaged in what he calls World War III. A major reason he takes that attitude is his fear of biological weapons. As he once put it in remarks representative of comments he has made on several occasions:

The loss of hundreds of thousands or millions to a biological attack is a real threat. If Iraq were only a one-step process, the answer would be to leave. But the reality is that Iraq is a single campaign within a much bigger war and within a power struggle both over the evolution of Islam and over the rise of dictatorships seeking nuclear and biological weapons to enable them to destroy America and her allies. In the age of nuclear and biological weapons, even a few hateful people can do more damage than Adolf Hitler did in the Second World War. The loss of two or three American cities to nuclear weapons is a real threat. The loss of hundreds of thousands or millions to a biological attack is a real threat. The threat is not merely an airliner crashing into a office building. It is an anthrax or smallpox attack or an engineered flu.

In that passage, we can find the best and worst of Newt Gingrich. On the positive side, he has looked to the future and identified a genuine threat. Just this week, Laurie Garrett explains in Foreign Policy that scientists have succeeded in creating deadly forms of bird influenza in laboratories, and that knowledge of how to repeat their experiments could easily spread via the Internet. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that "a crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology." Even if we're lucky and terrorists don't yet enjoy these capabilities, that just isn't going to remain true forever: as my colleague Robert Wright, among many others, has noted, the irreversible technological trend is for increasingly deadly weapons to be accessible for use by increasingly small groups of individuals.

That brings us to the flaw in Gingrich's thinking. Confronted with the fact that increasingly dangerous biological weapons are available to decreasingly sophisticated Islamists, he concluded -- as if it follows logically and incontrovertibly -- that the US should've stayed in Iraq and should send our military elsewhere too. What Wright would say is that before it's too late, we need to decrease the level of general world hatred aimed at the US because it isn't possible to stop every person with a chemistry set. Others argue that the money we spent on Iraq would've been better used developing vaccinations for avian flu or other defensive measures against bio-terrorism. Still others insist that international treaties, cooperation with foreign governments and a more robust system of international law are the best long-run preventative measures.

Catch Gingrich at the right moment and he'd enthusiastically embrace most or perhaps all of those strategies, and others besides, never acknowledging the necessary tradeoffs or committing to one approach if it requires granting that others are thereby foreclosed. He isn't a man of vision or grand strategy, but a treasure trove of tactics that he sporadically recommends, usually talking about whichever one he's settled upon as if it is actually a grand strategy, or the only logical step to take given the stylized account of reality he has most recently conjured.

Usually, there are smarter ways to think about the subject at hand.

In a recent episode of RadioLab, the podcast explored the origin stories of various ailments, including AIDS. Listening to the episode, I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that, amid all of the worrying our culture has done about pandemic diseases, whether after the publication of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone or during the anthrax attacks on the United States postal system, most of us have in fact lived through the rise of a killer virus that spread through the population and killed many millions. As the National Institute of Health puts it, "AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death among people ages 25 - 44 in the United States, down from number one in 1995. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 25 million people worldwide have died from this infection since the start of the epidemic." That's the 9/11 attacks times roughly 8,500!

A sane strategy to protect Americans from death by pandemic would be premised on possibility of a naturally arising scourge or a terrorist created bio-weapon, then apply our scarce resources to guard against both. In reality, even establishment politicians who don't mind spending money on public health and scientific research are more likely to treat military endeavors and other counterterrorism spending as the primary way Americans can be protected from pandemic disease, if you judge by their actual funding decisions and the focus of their rhetoric.

The total CDC budget request for 2011 was $10.8 billion. The NIH requested $32 billion. A small fraction of those sums will be dedicated to protecting Americans against future pandemics. The Iraq War has so far cost $800 billion and is ultimately going to cost $4 trillion, or perhaps even more. Whatever you think of that war's wisdom, it is highly dubious to argue that waging it for years on end was justified as part of a strategy to keep us safe from a pandemic.

Yet that's why Gingrich wanted to stay -- to help alleviate the future threat of biological and nuclear weapons.

Gingrich's problem isn't that he thinks our military and CIA should seek to stop terrorists from acquiring or using bio-weapons. They should! The point is that we have a scarce resources to fight pandemic diseases, and waging a series of foreign wars over the next several decades -- that's what Gingrich envisions when he talks about World War III - is a dubious way to allocate them if massive death via pathogen is one of the primary threats about which you're worried.

There is something to the conservative position that national defense is the primary role of the federal government, but it sometimes seems as if that observation causes Republicans to behave as if military spending and force projection are the most efficient, effective ways to safeguard us from every threat to life and liberty. Given the dearth of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, it seems clear -- at least in hindsight -- that allocating the funds spent there differently -- to enhancing security at global bio-labs, developing vaccines, disease monitoring, etc. -- would've been far more effective at reducing the threat of death from pandemic. For Gingrich, however, Iraq seemed like it was a strategically sound move even as pandemic defense. He's the sort who'll find it prudent for us to participate in more wars of choice in the future.

Image credit: Reuters