WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Emerson Smith, the U.S. Naval Academy's legendary boxing coach, used to admonish my fellow pugilists and me that "the best defense is a good offense."
That's great advice for those who enter a boxing ring. It also works for football, basketball, wrestling -- and most other athletic endeavors. It's a fine maxim for Marines and those who fight on conventional and even unconventional battlefields. But when it's nuclear war, depending solely on offense -- with no defense -- can be a formula for disaster.
On May 1, 2001, on his 102nd day in office, George W. Bush, the man pundits derided for an inadequate understanding of foreign-policy issues, the president they scorned for lacking a mandate, the commander in chief they critiqued for his mangled syntax, told our allies, our adversaries and the American people that it is time to "re-think the unthinkable."
The scientists and strategic thinkers who devised the "unthinkable" had a different name for it. They called the approach "Mutually Assured Destruction," or "MAD." Proponents, and there are many, claim the strategy resulted in a half century of relative peace -- and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Empire. That, of course, ignores the reality of what transpired over the years since 1949, when the Soviets, with the help of spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, built and detonated their first nuclear device -- triggering a prohibitively expensive and misnamed "Cold War."
It was anything but a "Cold War" for the nearly 100,000 Americans who died in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf and countless other skirmishes over the past 50 years. All of us with gray hair remember "fallout shelters" and air-raid drills with teachers rushing schoolchildren into the hallways to crouch with our backs to the wall and faces covered to protect against the blinding flash that would change life as we know it on this planet.
But as long as there were only a few powers (the United States, the USSR, Great Britain and France) that could afford the extraordinary cost of building nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them over great distances in a short period of time, the "balance of terror" held. And as long as the leaders of these nations believed that the risk of annihilation was too high to start a nuclear war, then an offense without a defense was a risk we could afford. That's no longer the case.
We now know that, by 1980, Israel, communist China, North Korea, Libya and Iraq either had, or were in the process of developing, nuclear weapons -- and the means of delivering them. On June 7, 1981, the Israelis, aware that Saddam Hussein was intent on constructing a nuclear device, launched an air strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad. The "international community" condemned Israel's pre-emptive attack. But at the White House, intelligence reports about a two-bit, tin-horn dictator building nuclear weapons galvanized those in the Reagan administration already at work on developing an alternative to "offensive deterrence."
By the time Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative on March 23, 1983, it was evident that, despite highly touted "nonproliferation agreements" and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States and our allies was actually increasing. That didn't prevent the Soviets, the "nonaligned movement, " Ronald Reagan's political opponents and most of the so-called mainstream media from assailing SDI and the president for embracing what they derisively nicknamed, "Star Wars."
The name stuck, but work on SDI quietly continued and, shortly after Bill Clinton became president in 1993, he was presented with a highly classified briefing on the critical need for developing and deploying multi-tiered, national- and theater-based, ballistic missile defenses. He was shown how vulnerable U.S. forces and Israeli civilians had been to primitive Iraqi Scud ballistic missiles during the Gulf War. Further, the CIA and DIA presented detailed intelligence on a virtual explosion in new nuclear weapons and missile threats from North Korea, communist China, Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq and Libya -- and what we should be doing to redress these risks.
High on the list of concerns: the need to abrogate or at least renegotiate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with Moscow. The Oxford-educated, Rhodes scholar all but ignored the CIA's warnings and the Pentagon's recommendations. Instead, massive defense cuts were followed by the sale and theft of sensitive U.S. weapons technologies -- and notwithstanding the growing threats -- by Bill Clinton's decision last Sept. 2 to defer deployment of any missile defenses. Three weeks later, the Russians tested the mobile and silo-based models of their new 6,200-mile-range Topol-M ICBM.
As expected, left-leaning critics in Congress, pacifists in the press and the old blame-America-first crowd have rounded up all the usual suspect arguments: that President Bush is accepting "unproven " technologies; that "the science of missile defense is untested"; that "scrapping the ABM treaty will create a new arms race"; and that "we can't afford" to protect ourselves from incoming weapons of mass destruction.
The opponents of ballistic missile defense belong to the Rodney King school of strategy, howling in unison: "Can't we all just get along?"
The answer is no. And until we can, the best defense against an incoming warhead will have to be a good defense. Now is the time to build one.