FAQ, missile defense

Posted: Feb 07, 2001 12:00 AM
In the matter of President Bush's determination to proceed with an anti-missile system, the fundamental questions are pretty easily analyzed.

The first is feasibility. Some critics of anti-missile defense deplore it on the grounds that it simply will not work. Donald Rumsfeld has said it rather plainly, that he thinks of himself as an expert on questions having to do with American security, but he is not an expert on anti-missile technology.

No one is, in fact. It is a long distance between conceptual reasoning and empirically tested reasoning. The fancy that a missile shot out of the ground in North Dakota could make its way to a missile shot out of the ground in Iran and interrupt its flight is fanciful only if we can't really do it. There has been much celebration among the critics over two theatrical failures in the last year (only one of three clinical interceptions worked). For the skeptics, it was as if a hidden camera revealed that Christ had not arisen.

The fact remains: What we have not succeeded in doing today ought not to be thought ontologically undoable tomorrow. When in 1958, spurred on by the Soviet Sputnik, we began missile-launching in Florida, we had a couple of ignominious failures. But we had then, and don't now, the knowledge that it could work, because the enemy had actuated the idea of a satellite. This challenge will be more difficult -- which, however, leaves it a challenge, something less than the pursuit of the impossible the skeptics are so eager to postulate.

There is the question, again fundamental, of expense. To which we have no alternative than to say: It's our dollar. We are not about to ask Europe to share the cost of defending Europe; that would be untraditional. There are dizzying estimates of the cost of realizing an anti-missile system, assuming its realization were possible. But longer perspectives remind us that the $2 billion estimated cost of the Manhattan Project, as a percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 1944, was more awesome than an investment of $60 billion in 2001.

So then we have the diplomatic question. On Tuesday we had on the front page of the International Herald Tribune two Bronx cheers. Mr. Putin has arranged to meet with the leaders of two rogue nations. And Peking published a newspaper the front page of which depicts Messrs. Bush and Powell as agents of a "space war" against China.

Though it's not a smiling matter, one smiles. The Russian leader concerts with the tyrants of North Korea and of Iran to bolster the notion that American security is best provided for by betting on the continence of such as Kim Jong Il and Mohammad Khatami to reassure Americans living in Detroit that it is not worthwhile exploring the development of some sort of a missile shield.

The communists in Peking, who have been busy developing their scratchy but no less deadly nuclear arsenal and threatening Taiwan with it, reply to Mr. Bush's initiatives by depicting him as engaged in a space war. It requires generations of intellectual docility, especially cultivated during the Cultural Revolution, for readers of the press of the People's Republic to assume that the development of an anti-missile system is a warlike initiative. What is it alleged that we would do, rain down anti-missiles over Peking?

Henry Kissinger, with his central hold on good sense, has addressed his longtime friends and associates in Europe by going at the question the other way around. You simply cannot expect the leading power in the world to do exactly nothing, in an age in which the development of ultimate weapons of destruction -- nuclear, biological and chemical -- are realizable ambitions of leaders without scruple.

There is absolutely no alternative to such an attitude as Mr. Bush has so reassuringly shown in the matter. It is to be likened to the decision by Ronald Reagan to deploy theater weapons in Europe to counteract the complementary threat from the Soviet Union. The decision having been made, difficulties get into line. If IBM sets out to create a computer of a particular kind recommended by not all its scientists or directors, the decision reconfigures everything and everybody else. The scientists and suppliers and stockholders readjust their priorities, and the project goes forward.

Diplomatic work is clearly necessary, but diplomatic servility, of the kind practiced by Clinton from time to time with the United Nations, is wrong, and Bush is not likely to get bogged down by it. Nobody knows the European scene better than Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell also knows how to take command. All systems are go.