Experts appearing at a congressional hearing Wednesday say the United States faces a range of threats to its security in coming years. These include continuing dangers posed by North Korea, the growing power of China, and continuing threats from Islamic extremists.
Appearing before the House Committee on Intelligence, the experts laid out a number of present day situations and future scenarios posing a threat to the United States and its interests around the world.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey argues there are three totalitarian movements: Baathism, with remnants in Iraq and still existing in Syria; the brand of Shiite Islamism controlling Iran; and Sunni Islamists, including those in al-Qaida.
Referring to Iraq, Mr. Woolsey says the term commonly used to describe Saddam Hussein remnants, is in reality something more dangerous.
"These are fascists,” he said. “The Baath party was founded, modeled after the fascists and the communists, the totalitarian movements of the 1920s and 1930s. This is an attempt by fascists to come back to power and keep their boot on the face of the rest of Iraq, supported by Islamist terrorists such as al-Qaida and its affiliates."
Mr. Woolsey is also a noted critic of the government in Saudi Arabia, and was especially critical of Wahabism, a conservatism form of Islam practiced there, and by al-Qaida leader Osama bin-Laden.
Former defense official Richard Perle agrees Islamist extremism constitutes perhaps the biggest threat, even more so if combined with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
It is impossible to reason with extremists, he asserts, and identifies what he calls a key challenge: how to confront governments with whom the United States has commercial, diplomatic and intelligence relationships, but which are suspected of supporting terrorists.
"Our ability to ferret that out has been limited and may become even more limited as more countries and sometimes individual senior officials in those countries, who are sympathetic to the cause of the terrorists, find ways to help them," he explained.
China and North Korea figured prominently in Wednesday's hearing.
Citing a December 2004 white paper by China's People's Liberation Army, James Woolsey is concerned about what he sees. "It details a remarkable hostility to the United States, and a remarkable commitment to aggressive modernization of all sorts,” he added. “And China being a dictatorship I think poses a particular problem."
Another expert on the panel expresses concern the United States has surrendered its influence when it comes to what is potentially perhaps the most dangerous situation: North Korea. "Our biggest strategy has been to outsource many aspects, important aspects of our foreign policy, to ask China for assistance, pleas help us in this important matter,” said Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now, of course, they play an important role, but they are increasingly playing a role that we used to play, they are the broker."
Mr. Campbell says it is unrealistic to expect that the North Korean regime will collapse, making it necessary for the United States to look at difficult options, including military ones.
On Iran, the panelists agreed the regime in Tehran lacks popular support, but nonetheless remains high on the list of major security concerns.
Richard Perle advocates a tougher U.S. position. "You have a miserably unpopular regime, involved in terrorism, and racing to acquire nuclear weapons and your colleague put the question, do we understand the situation in Iran? If we do, we haven't designed a policy that takes effective use of that understanding, because I believe if we did we would be helping those Iranians who want to liberate their country," said Mr. Perle.
Looming over the entire discussion about particular security threats was the question of U.S. intelligence and how to improve it.
Jane Harman is the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. "Gaining solid intelligence means collecting actionable and accurate information about the intentions of our enemies,” she said. “Analyzing that information quickly without missing key clues or assuming something that doesn't exist. And sharing that intelligence with key decision makers across the executive branch and with Congress."
It was the first in what is expected to be a series of hearings by the House Intelligence Committee in the new 109th Congress.