WASHINGTON--By the logic of some commentators hostile to President
Bush's determination to deploy defenses against ballistic missiles, the
government should stop trying to develop an AIDS vaccine. Attempts to
produce a vaccine have encountered failures and have not yet produced a
product that works ``perfectly'' or ``fully.''
The day Bush announced--reiterated, really--his commitment to missile
defense, ABC News said: ``He wants to spend a vast amount of money, and it
doesn't matter if the system doesn't work perfectly.'' An ABC correspondent
said critics accuse Bush of proposing something that would ``scare''
potential enemies even if it does not ``fully work.'' But what do such
people mean by the verb ``work''?
Critics announcing their thumping certitudes about military
possibilities should be chastened by the history of false prognostications,
from ``the bomber will always get through'' to the asserted impossibility
of ballistic missiles traveling intercontinental distances. As to whether
missile defenses can work ``perfectly'' or ``fully,'' have you ever owned a
car that worked ``perfectly''? What would it (BEG ITAL)mean to
say that that any complex system--a bomber, a tank, a destroyer--``fully
works''? Weapons have varying degrees of usefulness in various contexts.
During the Cold War, Gov. Mario Cuomo accused President Reagan of
building missiles ``we can't even afford to use.'' Well, yes. (BEG
ITAL)Avoiding what Cuomo thought of as the ``use'' of the
missiles--launching them--was the point of deterrence constructed around
sea- and land-based ballistic missiles. The missiles were being used just
by being there, complicating, to the point of paralysis, the calculations
of any potential aggressor. Even less-than-perfect missile defenses can
serve the same function--not supplanting deterrence, but strengthening it.
Reagan deserves accolades for reviving missile defense as a strategic
aspiration, and for presenting it as a moral imperative: It is not just
imprudent, it is unworthy of America to base its defense on mutual assured
destruction, a military policy condemned for a thousand years, that of
holding civilian populations hostage. But debate about missile defense
still is bedeviled by Reagan's improvident talk about an impermeable
shield. Such talk enables critics to argue that any defense screen less
than impermeable--and any shield can be penetrated by a sufficient
multiplication of offensive systems--is useless.
The immediate use for missile defenses would be to prevent a rogue
nation from using possession of a small missile force to deter the United
States from acting against that nation's regional aggression. If in 1990
Saddam Hussein had possessed a few nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of striking
European capitals, the task of assembling the Desert Shield coalition would
have been much more difficult. And even a nation with a more-than-minimal
missile force would find that even a less than-perfect U.S. shield would
complicate an aggressor's ability to make a credible threat.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed
Services Committee, says Bush's proposal could irritate Russia enough to
``risk a second cold war.'' Evidently, he thinks Russia will respond to
U.S. defenses by multiplying its ICBMs. But even if Russia could afford to,
which it cannot, Russia is not an enemy. Anyway, does Levin think U.S.
precautions in the face of various emerging threats (from North Korea,
China, Iran, Iraq) should be controlled by the sensibilities of a fading
If Russia's high mortality rate and low fertility rate continue, by
mid-century its population, currently 146 million, will have declined by 30
percent, and will be smaller than the populations of Iran or Vietnam.
Russia is becoming a Third World country with a hunter-gatherer economy. In
the words of Jeffrey Tayler, in The Atlantic Monthly (``Russia is
Finished''), Russia is becoming ``Zaire with permafrost.'' It is
``following the path of Mobutu's Zaire, becoming a sparsely populated yet
gigantic land of natural resources exploited by an authoritarian elite as
the citizenry sinks into poverty, disease and despair.''
Russia's economy, which is now about the size of the Netherlands', is
negligibly based on manufacturing products competitive in world markets. It
is based on extraction industries--oil, gas, minerals. Oil alone provides
one-third of state revenues. The military is impoverished, with officers'
salaries, adjusted for inflation, having fallen 50 percent in five years.
Opponents of missile defense are going to need arguments better than
``it won't (fully, perfectly) work'' or that this technologically
sophisticated undertaking will reignite the rivalry with a Russian
military that cannot pay its officers or cope with Chechens primarily using
only weapons they can carry.