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ANTHRAX VACCINATION AND THE DEEPER PROBLEMS OF LEADERSHIP By Andrew
March 10, 2000
Andrew J. Bacevich directs the Center for International Relations at
Boston University. This essay is adapted from a longer article appearing
in the Spring 2000 issue of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign
Policy Research Institute.
ANTHRAX VACCINATION AND THE DEEPER PROBLEMS OF LEADERSHIP
By Andrew Bacevich
For several years now, the Clinton administration has warned of the
specter of biological terrorism stalking the United States. As Secretary
of Defense William S. Cohen wrote in an op-ed portraying the horror that
could ensue: "Hospitals would become warehouses for the dead and
dying. A plague more monstrous than anything we have experienced could
spread with all the irrevocability of ink on tissue paper." The
question confronting the United States, Cohen insists, is not if such an
incident will occur, but when.
As a result of such fears, the administration has made biological
defense a top priority. Testifying to that priority, in December 1997
Secretary Cohen announced the mandatory vaccination against anthrax of
more than two million U.S. military personnel. But growing controversy
surrounding that program is exposing the larger flaws in U.S. preparations
for biological war.
OPPOSITION IN THE RANKS Much to the chagrin of top civilian and
military leaders, the vaccination program has prompted vocal opposition --
not from antiwar activists or conspiracy theorists, but from members of
the armed forces. Steadily increasing numbers of service personnel -- now
totaling more than 300 -- have refused to be inoculated. Some have even
left the military to avoid taking the shots. The vaccination policy's most
impassioned critics are pilots, many of them seasoned officers and combat
veterans. Hence, they are not easily dismissed as naive, misinformed, or
easily manipulated. These critics insist that the anthrax vaccine is
unsafe and endangers their health. Already short of pilots, the services
can ill-afford to lose more. Yet suspending the vaccinations in the face
of protests from the ranks could prove difficult and costly.
First, Pentagon leaders understandably worry that such a retreat may
undermine the integrity of the chain of command, setting a precedent to
challenge other onerous or unpopular orders.
Second, Defense Department officials have made "force
protection" a high priority, terminating the careers of officers
deemed insufficiently attentive to protecting the soldiers under their
command. Anthrax vaccinations are the paramount expression of this
priority. Defending the program, Secretary Cohen has told his troops,
"I would be derelict in my duties sending you out in an environment
in which you weren't properly protected."
Third, the vaccination program serves as the public expression of the
administration's overall bio-defense policy. Abandoning it would call the
entire policy into question.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Department of Defense has tenaciously
defended its anthrax policy and rejects criticism of the vaccine as just
wrong. "It's safe and reliable," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth
Bacon flatly states. The vaccine is also essential, Pentagon officials
assert, because at least ten nations possess or are developing biological
weapons, and anthrax is "the weapon of choice for germ warfare."
Senior defense officials counter reports of debilitating side effects to
anthrax vaccine by insisting that adverse reactions are occurring at a
lower rate than with mumps or measles vaccines. As if to prove the point,
civilian and military leaders alike, beginning with Secretary Cohen and
the joint chiefs, have rolled up their sleeves and been vaccinated. But
such attempts, rather than quelling criticism, have only seemed to confirm
the suspicion that the anthrax vaccination program is as much about public
relations as about military prophylaxis.
BROADER CONCERNS Skeptics of the program have raised a plethora of
concerns ranging far beyond safety. Those revelations suggest a program
plagued by mismanagement, reeking of impropriety, and based on a defective
strategy. At this point, even if the Pentagon were to sustain its claims
that the vaccine has no malign effects, more than sufficient cause exists
to indict the administration's biological warfare policy.
The broad critique of the administration's biological warfare program
consists of four major points.
First, the Defense Department has entrusted the manufacture of anthrax
vaccine to a single firm. Serious doubts exist regarding the ability of
this firm to produce a vaccine that meets established standards of purity
and potency. Efforts by the Defense Department to ease those doubts have
been less than persuasive. The company in question is the BioPort
Corporation of Lansing, Michigan, a start-up firm that bought the assets
of the previous manufacturer -- which went out of business after
repeatedly failing FDA inspections. Despite winning the DOD contract to
supply the vaccine in late 1998 and despite generous Defense Department
subsidies, BioPort -- relying on the same work force and same plant
management as its predecessor -- has not yet achieved the FDA
certification to produce anthrax vaccine. Second, government officials,
including qualified medical professionals, have themselves questioned the
efficacy of the vaccine, which was developed decades ago not for combat
but to protect tannery workers at risk from handling the hides of
anthrax-infected animals. According to a 1995 report by the chief of the
Bacteriology Division at U.S. Army Medical Research Institute, there
exists "insufficient data to demonstrate protection against
inhalational disease" -- the type that soldiers are most likely to
encounter. The Pentagon, eager to allay fears, promised an external review
of the vaccination program by an "expert panel." But the
"panel" was in fact a single individual who was, of all things,
a professor of obstetrics and gynecology. By his own admission, he had no
expertise in anthrax and refused to testify before a congressional
subcommittee regarding his evaluation of the program.
Third, immunizing U.S. forces in the field against one single strain of
anthrax is woefully inadequate protection against any real biological
threat. According to the administration's own analysis, toxins other than
anthrax pose at least as great a danger -- as does a genetically modified
anthrax. Furthermore, a biological attack against the United States would
likely target civilians, not soldiers, and cities, not military
installations. The implication that inoculating troops at Camp LeJeune
will deter an anthrax-equipped terrorist is absurd.
Fourth, the current biological defense policy perpetuates the
peculiarly American delusion that for every security problem there exists
a technological fix. Erecting a barrier that relies on outdated means and
leaves its flanks exposed, the anthrax vaccination policy is a bio-war
A WAY OUT What is needed is an approach that avoids scare-mongering
rhetoric and focuses the attention of senior leaders where it belongs --
on strategy rather than problem-solving. That approach would include
First, policymakers can extricate themselves from the present
ill-considered policy without having to admit openly its flaws. BioPort's
obvious failures provide sufficient basis to suspend the anthrax
vaccination program pending the identification of a reliable supplier of
high-quality vaccine -- a process likely to take three years.
Second, as an interim defense against anthrax, the Defense Department
should revert from prophylaxis to treatment. Administering antibiotics and
vaccine to those exposed to the virus was, in fact, how the Pentagon
intended to treat soldiers had U.S. forces encountered anthrax during the
Persian Gulf War.
Third, the president and secretary of defense should restate
unambiguously the intention of the United States to retaliate massively in
response to any biological attack against Americans. As was the case with
the nuclear threat during the Cold War, there is no substitute for a
credible promise of swift and potent punishment.
Yet all of that is, in a sense, the easier part of the problem. The
larger challenge is to restore to U.S. national security policy a sense of
proportion. Obsessing over operational and tactical details -- like
anthrax -- as a pretext for permitting leaders to dodge fundamental
strategic issues has become unacceptable. Chief among those issues is the
dominance of the international order by a highly ideological nation
dedicated not simply to its own defense, but to the universal adoption of
the values that it espouses.
Progress toward realizing this vision -- a world that is peaceful,
democratic, and respectful of human rights and free enterprise, with the
United States presiding as ultimate arbitrator -- has been at best uneven.
But with the success of this project having become a predicate of national
security, opposition in any form is construed as a "threat." As
a result, the nation -- although by any measure at the height of its power
and influence -- is (to judge by administration rhetoric) beset by growing
danger, not just from terrorists, but also rogue states, paranoid
dictators, and anarchic hackers.
At the heart of the problem lies policymakers' certainty as to their
own good will and the universality of American values. Opposition to the
further spread of American power, ideals, culture, and lifestyle is -- by
definition -- perverse or irrational. This outlook guarantees a never-
ending supply of enemies to confront. One need only consider the frequency
with which the Clinton administration has found itself obliged to employ
U.S. military forces to warn, coerce, punish, and occupy.
Fixating on the prospect of biological calamity, American leaders avert
their eyes from a larger, disconcerting truth: the global transformation
to which the United States has committed itself is not inspiring
spontaneous compliance. As a result, there is no end in sight to the
exertions that will be necessary if Americans are to realize their vision
for the world. Are the aspirations implied by that vision feasible? What
will it cost to fulfill them? How much are Americans, citizens as well as
soldiers, willing to pay? However commendable their concern for protecting
U.S. forces, addressing these larger questions forthrightly describes the
duty that American policymakers dare not neglect.
RECENT FPRI BULLETINS Rethinking Bio-Chemical Dangers, Henry Sokolski
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Missile Defense: Why Now?, Keith Payne
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