Saturday night's impressive intercept of a simulated ballistic
missile warhead high over the Pacific Ocean may not mark the beginning of
the end of the opposition to American deployment of effective anti-missile
defenses. But, as Winston Churchill might have put it, this latest evidence
that the United States does indeed have the technical ability and the means
to thwart missile blackmail -- and worse -- should mark "the end of the
beginning" of the effort to defend America from this growing scourge.
Whether that will prove to be the case depends, of course, on more
than a single flight test, albeit a make-or-break one. It will now fall to
the Bush Administration to build on the momentum imparted by this test to
firm up its substantive positions and rhetoric with respect to the only
real, remaining impediment to defending this country: the Anti-Ballistic
Missile (ABM) Treaty signed in 1972 with the Soviet Union.
Actually, President Bush and his subordinates have done a
commendable job, by and large, in speaking the truth about the ABM Treaty.
They have stated publicly that it is a "relic of the Cold War," fashioned
during an unrecognizably different period when the USSR was still a going
concern and an intractable foe of, and virtually the sole threat to, the
The Bush team has also accurately described the ABM Treaty as an
insuperable obstacle to the development and fielding of effective
anti-missile systems for the territory of the United States. That was,
after all, its express purpose and proven effect. (If any further evidence
were needed, consider Russian charges that even Saturday's test -- an
experiment specifically designed to be consistent with the ABM Treaty --
contributes to a situation "which threatens all international treaties in
the sphere of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.")
To its credit, the Bush Administration has properly and repeatedly
stated that, as a result, America has to "move beyond" the Treaty. It has
even served notice that it would have to do so "within months, not years."
What is urgently needed now, however, is a far more coherent and
disciplined position on the underlying issue: What role, if any, will
Russia have in the Bush Administration's movement "beyond the ABM Treaty"?
Unfortunately, Administration spokesmen last week seemed all over
the lot on the issue. In an interview with the Washington Post, Secretary of
State Colin Powell expressed the view that the U.S. "needs an understanding,
an agreement, a treaty -- something with the Russians that allows us to move
forward with our missile defense programs." Such a formulation at the very
least implies that we would not be able to "move forward" without Moscow's
assent. Yet, in remarks last week at the National Press Club, National
Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice firmly eschewed the idea that explicit
Russian permission, let alone a formal accord codifying a new, post-ABM
Treaty bilateral relationship, was required.
Meanwhile, at a Frontiers of Freedom Institute symposium on Capitol
Hill on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated flatly that
the United States would not "violate" the ABM Treaty and that he expected an
understanding to be reached with Moscow. Unfortunately, the nuances of the
Pentagon chief's formulation may have been lost on many, however.
Importantly, he also noted that the ABM Treaty expressly provides for either
parties' withdrawal on six-months' notice. Consequently, at such time as we
need relief from the Treaty, in the absence of any new understandings with
Russia, the United States would not violate the ABM Treaty -- because it
would simply withdraw from it.
It is worth noting that even this step would be unnecessary in the
event the Administration adopted the legal analysis of its newly confirmed
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith. Several years ago,
Mr. Feith and former Justice Department attorney George Miron definitively
established that, under international legal practice and precedent, the ABM
Treaty could no longer be legally binding on the United States after the
other signatory, the Soviet Union, was formally disestablished. Another
analysis by retired intelligence officer William Lee makes clear moreover,
that -- even if the Treaty were still in effect -- the fact that first the
USSR and subsequently Russia deployed and maintained a prohibited
territorial defense against ballistic missile attack would offer grounds to
declare the Treaty null and void.
Understandably, Mr. Bush and his subordinates would prefer to avoid
the domestic and international repercussions that might attend a formal,
unilateral American announcement that the ABM Treaty regime is no longer
operative. Yet, by being inexact on this point -- and, worse yet, by
suggesting (at least intermittently) that the U.S. will remain bound by that
accord unless the Russians give us license to leave it -- the Administration
plays into the hands of those who insist this obsolete treaty is "the
cornerstone of strategic stability" and that its termination will, as the
Washington Post editorialized on July 16, "detract from global stability."
Foreign critics will be emboldened to intensify their opposition to American
missile defenses; opponents at home will try to deny the Administration's
requests for funding associated with development and testing, to say nothing
of deployment, they consider incompatible with the ABM Treaty.
Like it or not, the Russian question can be finessed no longer.
President Bush will meet this weekend with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin,
in Italy; Dr. Rice will be visiting Moscow; and Secretaries Powell and
Rumsfeld will shortly begin conversations with their opposite numbers. And
in each of these settings, the Kremlin's representatives can be expected to
press sharply not only for clarity, but for advantage.
Specifically, Putin and Company will demand a veto over America's
missile defense program. For their own reasons, others -- from Russia's
strategic partner, China, to their rogue state clients to left-wing allied
governments to Senate Democrats -- are anxious to see the Kremlin succeed.
At a minimum, the Kremlin will insist on undertakings concerning ill-advised
sharing of U.S. missile defense technology, potentially reckless cuts in
American strategic forces and/or a commitment to negotiate the unachievable,
namely, amendments to the ABM Treaty acceptable to Russia yet compatible
with U.S. missile defense requirements.
Short of a deadly, missile-delivered attack on someplace we care
about, Mr. Bush is unlikely ever to be in a stronger position to take the
necessary step of terminating the ABM Treaty regime than he is now, in the
wake of Saturday's successful test. Unfortunately, if he fails to take that
step under present circumstances, the President risks fostering conditions
likely to ensure that he -- or a successor -- is obliged to do so after a
devastating attack occurs, one that might otherwise have been deterred or