Clinton Chooses To Postpone Construction Of Defense System

8 September 2000

By Stentor Danielson

By 2005, experts say, a "rogue state" such as North Korea or Iran could have the capability to hit the United States with a nuclear missile. Fears of a retaliatory strike would not hold these nations in check the way they did the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the logic goes. So plans were laid for a national missile defense shield, designed to shoot down incoming nukes, to be in place by 2005.

But President Clinton decided Friday that he would not authorize groundbreaking for the shield's Aleutian radar installation in time to take advantage of Alaska's short summer construction season next year, leaving the final decision to his successor. This was a shrewd move on Clinton's part, given the embarrassing failure of the system's last two tests and the growing opposition to the plan from other nations, friend and foe alike. But it leaves us with questions about the next President's wisdom in handling the situation.

Both men with a shot at claiming the highest office in the land in November support a missile defense shield of some stripe. Democrat Al Gore would implement a limited system to safeguard the United States, while coercing foreign opponents to accept it. Republican George W. Bush would be more aggressive, implementing an ambitious system that would protect the America and its allies (never mind that these allies don't particularly fancy being under the U.S. missile shield), while paying little attention to Russian and Chinese objections.

But in their haste to assuage fears of a Korean warhead nuking Washington, both candidates have missed the point about missile defense. Even the wimpier Gore plan would do more damage than good without a fundamental shift in the international climate.

The flaw in a missile defense system hinges on opposition abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin have been particularly vocal, praising Clinton's recent decision while condemning the defense system. Even allies such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have criticized U.S. missile defense plans.

Nations such as China and Russia feel threatened by the proposed missile shield, and would act accordingly if the shield were implemented.

China will be, in my humble opinion, the next true superpower to emerge (a scenario made all the more likely by the probable passage of economy-boosting Permanent Normal Trade Relations by the Senate this year). When that happens, it would be good if China doesn't remember the United States as the nation that said "screw you" to its military security.

The threat China sees is not an empty one. China has long feared that the United States will give up its awkward "one China" policy and recognize the independence of Taiwan. Trying to neutralize the effectiveness of the Chinese nuclear arsenal could easily be misinterpreted as a preliminary to a confrontation over the island. BushÕs proposal would go even farther, by bringing Taipei under Washington's shield. While "one China" is a flawed doctrine, confrontation over a missile defense is not the way to resolve it.

Missile defense supporters tend to dismiss Russian objections, pointing out that, while the Soviet Union was a superpower, Russia's economy has gone down the proverbial toilet since the USSR's fall and its military is often unable to provide basic equipment and pay for its soldiers. But this is more, rather than less, reason to pay attention to Russia. Putin can feel the power of the Soviet Union he once served slipping through his fingers, which may make him more prone to make a hasty decision if the United States issues a reminder, via nuclear defense, of Russia's shrinking power on the world stage.

Dealing with Russia is further complicated by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This treaty was meant to cool off the Cold War arms race by prohibiting the development of a missile shield by either the United States or the USSR. Putin has rejected all pleas and bargains to modify the ABM Treaty.

Proponents of a missile shield point out that the ABM Treaty was signed by the Soviet Union, and Congress never gave explicit approval for Russia to inherit the treaty. But both the executive and legislative branches have given implicit approval. Russia, China and others certainly believe the treaty is in effect. They will treat any missile defense as a breach of the treaty, even if the treaty is technically void.

Though the Cold War has ended, a missile defense still opens the door to a new arms race. Military history makes a laughingstock of contentions that, faced with an impenetrable missile shield over the United States, the rest of the world will simply throw up their hands in despair and give up their nuclear weapons programs.

A more likely scenario is that they will view a missile shield as a challenge, and rev up their arms programs to restore the balance of power. China has in fact promised to do exactly that. Even nuclear states with no intention of striking the United States would increase their arsenals to keep up with the Joneses. China's volatile southern neighbors, India and Pakistan, would be good examples.

The years it will take to complete the development, testing and construction of a missile shield (Clinton's announcement pushes the completion date back to at least 2006) will give concerned nations a window in which to act. The pressure could very well lead to hasty decision-making.

"Rogue states" would want to outrun the United States and get in a strike before the possibility is denied them. I wouldn't put it past China to stop its posturing and forcibly subjugate Taiwan lest America, feeling secure behind its missile shield, forcibly liberate the island. Prolonged negotiation would lose its appeal.

All the attention paid to missile defense also distracts from other scenarios just as likely to harm the United States. If Iran wants to nuke Chicago, it doesnÕt have to launch an intercontinental missile to do it. Nuclear devices can also be planted by agents on the ground, and there are plenty of anti-American folks outside as well as inside this country who would be more than happy to do the job.

And nuclear weapons aren't the only method a "rogue state" could use to hurt the United States. For example, a cyber-attack becomes more and more threatening every day, and America remains the most vulnerable target.

The point is, a missile defense will not make America invincible, but invincibility is necessary to counterbalance the consequences if a defense system is constructed against our neighbors' wishes.

Gore's commitment to missile defense throws doubt on the sincerity of "forward engagement" (his foreign policy buzzword) as well as his alleged expertise on arms control. Bush, on the other hand, only confirms his status as a foreign policy lightweight as he holds the illusion of security above real stability in the international arms arena. Both men need to rethink the opportunity Clinton has handed them.

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