The 'End of the Beginning'

Posted: Jul 17, 2001 12:00 AM
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 Free World. 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 prevented.