What is a foe of missile defense to do? Barely six months after coming to office, President George W. Bush is defying his detractors on one of his signature promises: to shield America from incoming atomic warheads. Recent technological and diplomatic developments have dismantled the arguments of Bush’s opponents, like so many defused bombs.
Those hoping to scuttle ballistic missile defense (BMD) have claimed that “Star Wars” is a high-flying hallucination.
“This isn’t rocket science here,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., South Dakota) told reporters on June 8. “Yes, it is rocket science, now that I think about it.” Daschle thought about it a bit longer, but apparently not too deeply. “Every aspect of the debate and the consideration given this whole program is troubling to me,” he added. “To commit the billions, the tens of billions of dollars, to deployment, to a system that we don’t know works, just seems to be backward to most of us.”
Former President Jimmy Carter was even more blunt. He ripped BMD as “technologically ridiculous.”
Despite such catcalls, Pentagon rocket scientists performed a BMD test on July 14. They shot a target missile from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base west over the Pacific Ocean. About 25 minutes later, they fired an interceptor from the Kwajalein atoll in Micronesia. It raced toward the first projectile at 16,200 miles-per-hour, also cruising at that speed, then neutralized it 144 miles above Earth.
Two of the Defense Department’s BMD tests have worked. Those who wish to leave America 100 percent exposed to incoming warheads complain about a system that, in its infancy, already has proven itself capable of halving that vulnerability. Further tests should enhance BMD’s reliability, just as NASA’s early failures at space exploration gave way to Apollo and the space shuttle.
The Bush administration could frustrate BMD opponents even further by testing boost-phase anti-missile technology. Designed to demolish hostile rockets as they slowly rise from their launch pads trailed by jets of hot gases, a low-tech, sea-based Aegis missile could splinter such a weapon relatively easily. Such tests would demonstrate that America could stop incoming rockets in both their boost- and space-flight phases. Later on, learning to destroy warheads as they descend in their terminal trajectories would round out a “layered defense.”
The hand-wringing caucus also has worried that BMD will harm U.S. relations with the Kremlin.
“I think if you look at the Russian situation,” Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) told Fox News Channel’s Paula Zahn on June 13, “they say that if the United States goes ahead and breeches the ABM Treaty and starts the process of deploying this before we’re ready, then they will not go into the reductions that they’ve agreed to under the Start II agreement.”
“The true purpose of the Bush plan seems to be to shoot down the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty rather than incoming ballistic missiles,” said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, on July 12. “National missile defense remains a costly and counterproductive shield of dreams.”
Just 10 days later, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from talks in Genoa, Italy looking like fraternity brothers recalling an old kegger. “I was struck by how easy it is to talk to President Putin, how easy it is to speak from my heart, without fear of complicating any relationship,” Bush said.
The next morning’s Washington Times summarized the breakthrough behind the smiles. “Putin agrees to scuttle ABM Treaty,” read the front-page banner headline.
The Russian promised reporters that “Together, we’re going to move forward in this direction, substantially changing the situation in the world, making it better throughout the whole world, reducing thresholds of confrontation.” He explained that “what was unexpected both for me, and I think for President Bush as well, was the understanding that was reached today between us on the issue that the offensive arms and issue of defensive arms will be discussed as a set.”
By linking America’s BMD program to the future of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, Putin and Bush have plenty over which to “jaw-jaw” — as Winston Churchill put it — rather than “war-war.” Condoleezza Rice, America’s Russophonic national-security adviser, visited Moscow on July 24 to arrange what she called “an aggressive schedule” of additional Bush-Putin negotiations.
The last refuge of the defensive-nuke naysayers is that BMD will rekindle a Cold-War-style U.S.-Russian rivalry in weapons production.
A June 20 editorial in the ever-vigilant New York Times warned that “Even a cash-strapped Russia could afford to add hundreds of multiple warheads to new and existing missiles.”
Sen. Joseph Biden (D., Del.), now Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, virtually went into orbit in an April 4 speech to the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers. “Building a national missile defense could lead to a world with more nuclear weapons, more nuclear powers, and more weapons on hair-trigger alert. Is that a world in which we are more secure than today? Not in my book!”
Relax, senator. The magic in the Bush-Putin partnership for peace is that their ongoing consultations, including an upcoming summit at Bush’s Texas ranch, are geared toward major, bilateral reductions in thermonuclear devices.
“I think they are going to try to get down from about 6,000 warheads on each side to about 2,000,” says Jack Spencer, defense policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “That’s contingent on moving forward on an effective missile defense. That would be the new strategic construct for the modern era.”
Fewer atomic bombs, East-West harmony and an umbrella to protect America even from accidental mushroom clouds. Rather than whine, Bush’s opponents should coo like doves.
Lester Pearson, Canada’s former External Affairs Minister and winner of the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, once said: “Diplomacy is letting someone else have your way.” Constantly dismissed by the cognoscenti as America’s geographically-challenged knucklehead-in-chief, President Bush somehow is confounding his critics and bringing Pearson’s words to life.