A joke at the Kremlin
"Imagine a sunny and beautiful day in a suburb of Manhattan," he [Putin] said. "An elderly man is tending to the roses in his small garden with his nephew visiting from Europe. Life seems perfectly normal. The following day, the nephew, carrying a suitcase, takes a train to Manhattan. Inside the suitcase is a nuclear bomb."
The threat, Putin explained to me a year before 9/11, was not from this or that country but from their terrorist proxies — aided and supported quietly by a sovereign state that doesn't want to get its hands dirty — who will perpetrate their attacks without a return address. This scenario became real when Al Qaeda plotted its 9/11 attacks from within Afghanistan and received support from the Taliban government. Then it happened again this summer, when Iran was allowed to wage a proxy war through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
One consequence of the politics of the last five yeas will be to ensure that such warnings will on no account be taken seriously. 'A sovereign state attacking America through proxies? Don't be ridiculous. Those are stories that neoconservatives tell. If there were secret links between terrorist enabling states and terrorists we would have found out.' Now whether such accusations were ever true in the past is immaterial. They won't be considered true in the future. Not because there is some physical or factual bar to its existence but a political prohibition of its utterance.
But the really harmful consequence of not recognizing proxy warfare and addressing it openly is that it creates a subterranean world of countermeasures. A black market in defense. The present war is one no one wants to know anything about; that polite society wants to pretend doesn't exist. Viewed from one angle the history of Western counterterrorism is the history of concealment, with counterterrorism nearly as well hidden as their quarry. It is about faceless groups of men in pursuit of even shadowier figures across a secret landscape. By day we live in genteel world where we speak deferentially of other cultures; listen politely to Amnesty International; pretend we believe in the United Nations; are aghast at the suggestion of asking a prisoner for more than his name, rank and serial number. But by night we sleep in a decaying jungle of creeping horrors, one in which a suitcase nuclear weapon is simply another grotesque, a nightmare which intrudes upon the waking world only in the ghostly setting of the Kremlin, as between an ex-spymaster and a former Zek. There we can somehow speak its name.
But how if Sharansky told Putin. "Yes, Vladimir. Imagine a wonderful dusk in Moscow, or Teheran, or Damascus. The work of the day is done; and strong, capable men lock their safes and wait for the limousines to carry them to the secret policeman's ball. There will be women, wine! Especially in Teheran there will be wine! And somewhere on those darkened streets a man may take a suitcase from a car and sets it very carefully in a bus station locker. Quietly. As if he were afraid to awaken something sleeping. Not from my country, Vladimir. But from some other, lawless country, one that doesn't want to get its hands dirty — who will perpetrate their attacks without a return address. What should we do about that Vladimir?"