The Real Debate About Missile Defense

Posted: May 08, 2001 12:00 AM
It was one of the more memorable examples of the phenomenon of "damning with faint praise." Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle was talking about George W. Bush's speech to the National Defense University, in which the President forcefully laid out his arguments for defending the United States, its troops and allies against ballistic missile attack and launched international consultations to help sell his vision. Senator Daschle said that Mr. Bush has begun "one of the most important and consequential debates we will see in our lifetime." What he really meant, though, was that the President is making grave mistake and that he and other opponents of missile defense intend to prevent W. from perpetrating it on the rest of us. To be sure, Mr. Daschle will likely take exception to being called an opponent of missile defense. In so doing, however, he will underscore the disingenuousness of the debate he intends to make among the "most important and consequential" of the present era. Specifically, what those like Tom Daschle and his comrades (notably, liberal Democrats like Senators Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd and John Kerry and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt) mean when they say they support missile defenses is that they don't -- except under circumstances calculated to render such support meaningless. Specifically, such critics tend to assert that: 1) Any U.S. anti-missile system must meet some ill-defined but very exacting performance standard, yet not be so capable as to prevent Russia or even China from being able to threaten to destroy this country. 2) It must not cost too much to deploy, although how much would be acceptable is rarely spelled out. And, perhaps most importantly, 3) the United States must not proceed "unilaterally." Let's examine each of these conditions in turn. First, it is a safe bet that the United States can produce the technology needed for a reliable territorial anti-ballistic missile system. But it can only do so if we stop trying to develop such technology within the limitations imposed by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that explicitly forbids us from having that capability -- an idea the critics abhor. [Think about it. Does anyone really believe the U.S. could have gotten men safely to the moon and back using 1960s technology -- arguably a much more difficult proposition than hitting a small number of missiles or warheads with 21st Century equipment and know-how -- if we had we tried to do it while observing a treaty banning lunar exploration? Once President Bush affirms that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is no longer consistent with the United States' "supreme interests" and exercises our undisputed right therefore to withdraw from that accord, the decks will be cleared for rapid fielding of competent defenses.] Obviously, the costs of such a missile defense will be a function of the sort of system or, more likely, the layers of anti-missile capabilities chosen for deployment. As it happens, the approach pursued half-heartedly by the Clinton Administration was one of the most expensive and least capable options. Far more effective, global protection could be acquired for considerably less if the Navy's existing investment in Aegis fleet air defense ships is utilized as the basic infrastructure for near-term defenses while space-based sensors and weapons are brought on-line. These systems are not compatible with the ABM Treaty though, and thus are non-starters for many of the critics of missile defense. The real Catch-22, though, is the line that the United States can only go forward if our allies and potential adversaries agree. After all, in the event President Bush allowed the left-wing governments running virtually every allied government at the moment to make the call, few (if any) would give their blessing. For them, arms control treaties are sacred writ or, in the case of the ABM Treaty, "the cornerstone of strategic stability." What is more, most of them (especially the French) foolishly believe it to be in their nations' interests for the United States to be hobbled militarily. The allies are rapid supporters of missile defenses though when compared to one-time and potentially future foes like the Russians, the Chinese and the North Koreans. They very much fancy the American vulnerability that gives their missile threats strategic and commercial value. As long as they think they can exercise a veto, they will try to do so. Those who would make our defenses contingent upon blessings from these quarters, should be seen for what they are: inveterate opponents of U.S. missile defenses who prefer not to be identified as such. As a result, the challenge for Mr. Bush will be not merely to advocate a technically viable and affordable anti-missile system worthy of broad support at home and abroad. Increasingly, he must also make the case for U.S. leadership at a time when it is being vilified as "unilateralism." He must unapologetically extol American exceptionalism at a moment when the Nation is under growing pressure to conform to the lowest-common-denominator served up by the so-called "international community." The reality is that American sovereignty and security cannot be safely entrusted to those who do not have this country's best interests at heart and/or who labor under delusions about the consistency of world governance and international norms. The latter group's nostrums are all the more untenable insofar as these arrangements are increasingly being defined by whatever terms are agreeable to the likes of Muamar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein and their patrons. For evidence of this phenomenon, one need look no further than the absurd outcome of last week's vote on membership for the UN Human Rights Commission -- which seated Sudan, Cuba, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Russia and China while unseating the United States. The emissaries Mr. Bush has fanning out around the world this week to explain and promote his visionary "framework" must establish America's determination to defend its people, troops and allies, come what may. We can always make arrangements not to protect nations that decline to have our help. But we can no longer afford to allow their opposition to prevent us from taking the steps with respect to the ABM Treaty and the development and deployment of affordable, effective missile defenses that are so clearly needed in today's world -- and tomorrow's.