The United States has dithered with missile defense for 30 years. With whether to build something like Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), it has dithered for nearly 20.
Time is, or ought to be, up.
George Bush campaigned partly on the need for an effective defense against nuclear- and bio/chemical-tipped warheads from "rogue" nations. It was no secret missile defense would be high on his agenda. Yet the air is full of the usual static from the usual suspects. They say...
Missile defense would not work - cannot work. It is unnecessary. It would cost too much. We cannot afford it, particularly with the tax cuts and competing demands for federal monies. It likely would militarize ("weaponize") space. It would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.
It would anger our enemies. And it would provoke our steadfast friends in France, Russia and Communist China - plus clairvoyants at The New York Times, Posties in Washington's Temple of Katharine, the full posse of Clinton administration alumni, sensitive Democrats, and well-intending lefties everywhere.
With such opposition, who possibly can favor it?
Those uncomfortable about America standing naked to missile aggression. Those uneasy that America is vulnerable to blackmail, to its cities being held hostage - as suggested by China in March, 1996, when it declared it could hit Los Angeles with a nuclear missile.
Those (a) alarmed that the period since the 1972 ABM Treaty has seen the deployment of more missiles than in any other period, and (b) wondering why building our own system to defend America would encourage the deployment of more. Those willing to include just about anyone - even Russia - under a missile-defense umbrella.
Those finding alien the notion that the United States may not adequately defend itself without permission from (e.g.) the Russians and Chinese - these days loving it up in a new "friendship" treaty. Presumably most of those who voted for Bush. And finally, those committed to developing whatever defenses are necessary to preserve and protect the American people - adequate defense being every commendable government's principal obligation to the citizens it serves.
So the battle has been joined. The Secretary of Defense is pushing for missile defense, along with the president and most Republicans. President Bush is working to win concessions from Russia, on the threat of (a) U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty under its Article XV, and (b) the likely corresponding announcement that Russia itself has violated the treaty by developing its own missile-defense system. The military has now performed successful missile-defense tests and many more tests are planned - as is the construction of test facilities at Alaska's Kodiak Island and Fort Greely.
The administration's goal is to have elements of a layered missile-defense system - ground-based, sea-based, airborne-based, and space-based - in place by 2004-05 so a Democratic successor to Bush could not undo it.
Innovation and response. When Neanderthals began throwing rocks, their adversaries soon learned how to duck. The sword and the spear quickly produced the shield.
Right now - today - missiles can reach the United States, our allies, and our troops with nuclear and bio/chemical payloads. In a world of malign wackos postulating America as the Ultimate Enemy, how smart is it for the United States NOT to do whatever it can to neutralize the possibilities of blackmail or outright attack?
Building a missile-defense shield and reinvigorating the military should be the administration's top priorities. Nothing - nothing - is more important.
The president seems to be moving with prudent aggressiveness, but he must not forget the dictum, First win the people, then win the war.
America has many enemies, but they are camouflaged. The Olympics go to a country that takes out our reconnaissance planes and jails our citizens, ethnically cleanses Tibet, compels abortion and imposes slave labor among its own people, and survives by the politics of terror. Fundamentalist Islam defines America - the West - as the infidel to be rubbed out.
To defend ourselves against the depredations of such people, should we and our allies not have an adequate shield? Or will we be seduced into inaction by the siren songs of the Pollyannas chirping that all will be well?
In this new dithery hour reminiscent of the mid-1980s fracas about Star Wars, the president should go to the people repeatedly and make the case for missile defense. He should boost it zealously, the way President Kennedy ginned up enthusiasm for landing men on the moon. Without an enemy clearly defined, and without first winning the people, the president may find himself unable to transform the military or construct a missile defense.