News | Oct. 1, 2009

Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

By Paul I. Bernstein, John P. Caves, Jr., and John F. Reichart CSWMD Occasional Paper 7

Nearly 20 years have passed since the United States began worrying in earnest about the risks of regional weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. In the run-up to Operation Desert Storm in 1990, the Department of Defense (DOD) had no systematic understanding of or approach to prosecuting a regional war against an adversary armed with and prepared to use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. The improvisational efforts to prepare for possible Iraqi WMD use gave way after the war to a concerted effort during the Bill Clinton administration to prepare the Armed Forces to confront WMD-armed regional adversaries, while working to defuse such threats through diplomacy—coercive and otherwise. The George W. Bush administration brought to the WMD problem a different set of assumptions and beliefs that led to new areas of emphasis and new approaches, many of them shaped by the need, after the attacks of 2001, to confront more directly the threat of WMD use by violent nonstate actors. The following traces the general evolution of the countering WMD enterprise in the Clinton and Bush administrations.