33 Minutes: Pragmatism Or Propaganda?

Last night, three conservative think tanks, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Heritage Foundation co-hosted a screening of the Heritage-produced film 33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age. The message of the film is that it could take as little as thirty-three minutes for a WMD-tipped missile to reach the United States, and we are defenseless against such a missile, and so we need to invest a lot more money into developing greater missile defense.

Here’s the trailer (Warning: Contains menacing, Muslim-y sounding music, as well as numerous mushroom clouds):

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, Jr., of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation responded to some of trailer’s points here. Why only the trailer? Because, as of now, only the trailer is available publicly. The film itself is available only for private viewings. During the post-film discussion, I asked why, if the threat was as dire and imminent as the film claimed, was Heritage not releasing it in its entirety on YouTube, so anyone could watch it, and spread the word (and critique it)? Heritage’s James Carafano responded that the producers of the film preferred that it be watched and discussed in fora like the one last night. To that end, each attendee was provided with a card to request to host a private showing of the film. I’m looking into whether ThinkProgress can host one.

As the trailer suggests, the film spends a lot of time describing the disastrous consequences of a missile strike on the United States. What it failed to do, in my view, was show that any such attack was remotely likely. Neither of the two main villains of the film — Iran and North Korea — currently possess capability to strike the U.S. with a ballistic missile. And there’s no evidence that either country has any intention of courting the destruction that would be pretty much guaranteed were they to lob one at us. As for the oft-mentioned “nightmare scenario” of a terrorist with a nuke, the chances of A) a nuclear-armed state simply giving away a weapon that they’ve invested a considerable amount of resources into developing and B) a terrorist obtaining a nuke and then choosing to place it atop a missile and then firing that missile into the U.S. are, to put it charitably, vanishingly small.

Somewhat puzzlingly, in the film Carafano — who has a solid reputation as a serious, if seriously hawkish, national security analyst — spends a few minutes riffing on the threat from electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Rob Farley’s article on the EMP movement is the place to read about this. Put simply, if some ballistic missile threat scenarios skirt the edge of science fiction, EMP threat scenarios swan dive right over the cliff. I’ll grant that there’s a legitimate debate to be had over whether, given the actual size of the threat, it’s pragmatic to continue developing missile defense. I tend to think not. But I also don’t think pro-missile defense types do themselves any favors by giving cover to the EMPers.