A missile defense pause

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Saturday's edition of the Washington Post: Intelligence estimates suggest that by 2005 a hostile state, most likely North Korea, will be able to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. This lends urgency to the issue of building a national missile defense. But that seemingly straightforward calculus is complicated by an abundance of variables: The system currently being pursued by the Clinton administration has not been shown to be technically feasible -- and it has Republican critics who argue that a different system based on ships would be superior. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty forbids the construction of a nationwide defense system, and Russia, fearful of acquiescing in the trumping of its own nuclear forces, balks at releasing the United States from the pact, even when offered a treaty on large mutual strategic arms reductions. China, too, regards a U.S. missile defense as a threat to its small nuclear force's deterrent value; thus a national missile defense could trigger a Chinese buildup, which could stimulate an Indian buildup, which could stimulate a Pakistani response, and so on. America's NATO allies look at these potential downsides of missile defense and recoil.

President Clinton, too, seems to have decided that the risks associated with a national missile defense are greater than the benefits of beginning to build a system. He said Friday that he has instructed the Defense Department to conduct further tests, but not to break ground for a radar station in Alaska. His decision guarantees that no system will be ready by 2005.

Nevertheless, it makes sense for Mr. Clinton to kick the ultimate choice into the next administration. This is a fateful determination that should be made by a president operating under a fresh mandate with more information, after a campaign in which all the pros and cons of the various missile defense options have been fully aired. Now let that debate begin. Both candidates claim to believe that a missile defense should be deployed as soon as technically feasible and that, while due attention must be paid to the concerns of other nations, no one should have a veto over U.S. security decisions.

Beyond that, however, there are important differences of emphasis and attitude. Gov. George W. Bush is clearly more unbridled than Vice President Al Gore in his faith that the technical bugs can be worked out -- so much so that he has called for the earliest possible deployment of a missile defense that would protect not only the United States but its "friends and allies." He would offer unilateral reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal to assuage Russian concerns, but if the Russians didn't buy in, he would proceed, even if that meant scrapping the ABM Treaty. Bush didn't quite explain what system, exactly, he has in mind, or how it would work; one popular Republican alternative, a sea-based system designed to strike enemy rockets at a lower point in their trajectory, might not be ready for many years after 2005, if then.

Gore has denounced Bush's plan, saying it would "create instability and undermine our security." In essence, he appears to embrace the current strategy of building a limited system to defend the 50 states against a rogue-state missile attack, while going the extra mile to preserve the ABM Treaty. He promises to "work hard" to gain Russian acceptance, but doesn't explain why the Russians would be any likelier to accept from him the same inducement -- large mutual strategic arms reductions -- that they already turned down from President Clinton.

The missile defense issue raises the most profound of strategic questions. Are U.S. and global security best served by continuing to keep the nuclear peace exclusively, or mostly, through deterrence -- ensured by the credible threat of a devastating retaliation to an enemy first strike -- as during the Cold War? Or have geopolitics, proliferation and technology evolved to the point where a stronger element of defense should play a central role in U.S. plans? President Clinton couldn't quite square these circles, so he has defensibly deferred a decision into the next president's first term. But it cannot be postponed any longer than that.

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