On June 14th, the United States will complete its withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, clearing the way for the expeditious development and deployment of effective U.S. missile defense systems. Unless, that is, Sen. Carl Levin and a few other congressional Democrats have their way.
The problem arises from the fact that Senator Levin is no longer simply one of the most liberal defense critics in his caucus. Today, he happens also to be the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Each spring, that committee and its House counterpart go through what is called the “mark-up” of legislation that authorizes appropriations for the Pentagon during the next fiscal year. Even during peacetime, the defense authorization bills that emerge from the Congress (usually late in the year) largely reflect the President’s request and priorities. This is even more true during wartime periods, such as that in which we have found ourselves since September 11.
And so it was last year, when Sen. Levin initially sought to cut over $1 billion from the budget George W. Bush had proposed to ready for deployment of a limited national missile defense. The Senator seemed determined to do so, even after the attacks of 9/11 validated the central point of Mr. Bush’s argument for such a defense: There are people in the world determined to kill a great many Americans. Some of them are getting their hands on weapons (whether designed for the purpose or otherwise) capable of destroying thousands of us at a time -- including the most efficient means of doing that, ballistic missiles equipped with weapons of mass destruction. It is, therefore, a matter of time before we are at the receiving end of such a deadly attack.
As an ideologically committed opponent of missile defense, Carl Levin remained unpersuaded by this logic. The Senator nonetheless appreciated that he would have been soundly defeated had he brought to the Senate floor a bill mandating such deep cuts and chose to fight another day over funding for missile defense.
In the same way, and for the same pragmatic political reasons, a still-more-insidious Levin initiative died aborning after September 11th: The Armed Services Committee’s chairman decided not to pursue a plan to impose -- via new legislative language -- impediments calculated to preclude near-term deployments of effective anti-missile systems.
If President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld do not act quickly and decisively, however, such obstructionism may yet emerge from the Committee mark-up Sen. Levin will conduct over the next few days.
For example, Senator Levin has suggested that each of the armed services be required to certify that expenditures by the Pentagon’s independent Missile Defense Agency enjoy their full support and are more important than their own, individual priorities. This transparent divide-and-conquer stratagem would directly, and perhaps mortally, erode the Secretary of Defense’s ability to establish and execute programs for the Defense Department as a whole.
Chairman Levin has also expressed an interest in denying President Bush the ability to streamline and greatly accelerate the development and acquisition of missile defenses. Toward this end, he would like to subject this priority effort to the same unbelievably sclerotic bureaucratic arrangements -- featuring numerous, ponderous program reviews known as “milestones” -- that typically keep new weapon systems from coming on line in less than twelve-to-fifteen years.
Even more insidious is Sen. Levin’s reported interest in requiring the Pentagon to get prior congressional approval before missile defense programs are allowed to undergo such “milestone” reviews. Then, after defense officials have performed their review, he thinks Congress ought to have the right to second-guess the department’s decision.
Such micro-management is a sure-fire way to prevent anything useful from coming out of the billions of dollars President Bush is allocating to end our increasingly dangerous vulnerability to missile attack. It would also go a long ways towards frustrating the intended effect of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. The combined impact would be to position Senator Levin and others on the Left to rail disingenuously in the future as they have in the past -- namely, that there is not much to show for the money spent on missile defense, that the technology is not ready to deploy, that the costs and risks of doing so are too great, etc., etc.
Since President Bush came to office, he has exhibited impressive steadfastness and the courage of his convictions with respect to missile defense. He made the case for getting out of the ABM Treaty. He worked skillfully to create conditions that all but eliminated any international turmoil when last December he actually exercised the United States’ right to do so. And he has wisely rejected appeals from the Russians and the American Left to enter into a new agreement with the Kremlin aimed at limiting missile defenses in some fashion.
The historic and strategic significance of all of this may be substantially eroded, however, if he were now to allow determined congressional opponents like Carl Levin to strangle the missile defense program in unwarranted, counterproductive and politically/ideologically motivated red tape. To avoid this, Messrs. Bush and Rumsfeld should put the Congress on notice forthwith: Any effort to continue the garrotting effect of the restrictive ABM Treaty via legislatively mandated congressional micro-management will precipitate a presidential veto of the defense authorization bill.