Missiles Missiles Everywhere

Posted: May 06, 2001 12:00 AM
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is competing for king-of-the-walk hyperbole. His opposition to permitting Social Security participants to deploy their savings elsewhere than in government IOUs took the form of: "Would Mr. and Mrs. America prefer to have had that 20 percent of their savings in federal deposits in the last six months or in the NASDAQ?"

Waal, senator, that's certainly setting up the choices in a way that shuts up Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill in one sweep, they who spoke about the fruits of individual allocations of economic energy. He might as well have observed that the man dropping from the mountain ledge, if asked in mid-air whether he'd rather have stayed in place, would have answered conventionally.

Sen. Daschle is asserting himself very vigorously in Washington these days, and on Wednesday, in a dramatic rejection of President Bush's declaration in favor of anti-missile development, said that Mr. Bush had begun "one of the most important and consequential debates we will see in our lifetime." That's a pretty good launch -- an epochal debate by a young president to whom Mr. Daschle and his colleagues condescended for so many months -- for President Bush, and a crystallization of the elements in that debate is badly needed. Is Mr. Bush investing the entire defense establishment in the NASDAQ?

One demurral doesn't deserve very much time, though it is the fault of some conservatives that it was given any time at all. There is the school of thought that says the ABM Treaty is no longer binding on the United States for the very simple reason that it was negotiated with a national entity now dead. The Soviet Union, with which the pact was signed in 1972, does not exist. Some people argue that therefore there is no surviving treaty. Treaties with the government of Louis XVI were no longer inhibiting in Europe after Napoleon took over. But the problem with that glib line of reasoning is that various treaties with Moscow have in fact continued in place since 1991, and we are on record as having recommended to President Yeltsin that it should be so.

But that is an ephemeral question because the treaty clearly gives to either government the authority to cancel it on six months' notice. Mr. Bush hasn't said he is going to do that, but his intentions are very clear: He will attempt, for the sake of diplomatic camaraderie, to weave with Putin such alterations in the treaty as would permit the experiments Bush and his team have in mind. And here is an important aspect of the approach Messrs. Bush and Rumsfeld have in mind. The anti-missile system is not to be compared with landing on the moon. That program was evaluated by a single criterion: Did we land on the moon?

The administration has in mind technological experimentations that give us mini-moon landings along the way. Suppose, to use round figures, that the paradigm -- a perfect system -- were given as "100," meaning complete protection against incoming missiles. Well, as the mathematicians would put it, that is an asymptotic curve. You can get nearer and nearer to 100, but you are guaranteed only that. However you succeed in extending the life span, you will never succeed in achieving eternal life on Earth.

The question then becomes, Are there layers of improved security along the way? If we reach, let us say, the level of 25 in five years, are we better off? And if we have reached 25, will we have developed a technological acuity that will hasten the day when security is progressively heightened? If in five years we can, operating out of Alaska, reasonably hope to give shelter to Japan and Hawaii from an odd missile or two from North Korea, will we find ourselves on the way to a technology, five years later, that fires effectively at the boost phase of inbound missiles?

Sen. Daschle and his colleagues will have to be convinced that a quarter is better than none, and that a quarter invested in the NASDAQ can bear fruit, if you let time and perspectives assert themselves. What are these? Skeptics are saying that unless we have 100 percent protection, we have accomplished nothing, since a single atom bomb is strategically unacceptable, and no coherent planning can be done if allowance has to be made for the possibility that a single bomb would land -- on Washington, on Paris, on London, on Moscow.

Mr. Bush's proposals don't suggest hermetically sealed frontiers that would guard against suitcase deliveries, whether of nuclear or chemical or biological weapons. We run into our old friend, the fallacy of division. It is not true that because an airtight comprehensive weapons system is unachievable, therefore individual weapons systems shouldn't be encouraged.

There is only one hypothetical decisive argument against going forward full steam. It is this: Does Mr. Bush envision ongoing expenditures that rule out concomitant expenditures on infrastructural defense demands? We need a ton of money for naval and air and personnel. Is that money jeopardized? We are very wealthy, but we aren't fighting a war, and our tax load is already as heavy as if we were in fact fighting a war. But the impulse to spend more -- and tax more -- is awakened when the challenge to our resources seems real. Here Bush has a job to do, extending beyond the diplomatic and educational requirements of Mr. Daschle.