National-security hawks lost a battle last week when 71 members of the Senate — not all of them Democrats — voted to ratify New START. The treaty limits America’s non-nuclear long-range weapons. Its verification provisions are not as rigorous as those negotiated in the 1991 START treaty. And, perhaps most troubling, the Russians have made clear that they view the agreement as limiting America’s deployment of a comprehensive system of defenses against missile attacks.
President Obama insists that the treaty does not mandate such constraints. What’s more, he has gone on record, for the first time, unambiguously supporting missile defense. National-security hawks — not all of them Republicans — should now ask him to back that up with funds for the development, testing, and deployment of missile defenses.
A world without nuclear weapons is a lovely dream but one that will not be realized during the lifetime of anyone reading this column. What is feasible in the foreseeable future is a world in which aggressors know that America has the means to prevent missiles armed with nuclear warheads from reaching their intended victims.
In September, Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) offered an amendment to the resolution to ratify New START that would have committed the U.S. to exactly this goal: deploying “as rapidly as technology permits an effective and layered missile-defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States and its allies against all ballistic-missile attacks.”
Why would anyone oppose that? During the Cold War, we relied on MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea was that so long as both we and the Soviets left ourselves vulnerable, neither would see benefit in being the first to strike. Proponents of “strategic deterrence” argue that the doctrine served us well then and that it would be a mistake to abandon it now.
I would argue that MAD was not crazy — not at a time when effective missile defense was barely a twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye and the Soviet Union, though an evil empire, was not an irrational one. Soviet rulers did not believe that martyrs for Communism would be greeted in Paradise by black-eyed virgins or that an apocalypse would summon the Mahdi (the Islamic messiah) from occultation.
The other side of the equation has also changed: Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, American scientists have made astonishing progress in missile-defense technology. Not long ago there were those who insisted it was impossible to hit a bullet with a bullet. Now we have the means to hit a spot on a bullet. And much additional progress can be achieved if we will make the necessary investments in such technologies as the ABL, an aircraft-based laser that could be flown near potential ballistic-missile launch locations.
The DeMint amendment never came to a vote, but the approach it encapsulates ought to be debated both in the next Congress and in the public square. Do most Americans want to remain vulnerable to Russia and China as well as to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk — who for years have been killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, inscribing “Death to America!” on their missiles, and stating their long-term foreign-policy goal as “a world without America”?
Consider, also, what Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez might do with Iranian-provided ballistic missiles. And should we not have a defense against the possibility that terrorists aboard a ship off one of our coasts might launch an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack? Henry F. Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, recently noted that “no national strategy addresses this threat or underwrites a serious program to counter its effects.”
A comprehensive and “layered” missile-defense program would be designed to stop ballistic missiles in all stages of flight — boost, midcourse, and terminal. It would include land- and sea-based defenses as well as “interceptors” that would destroy ballistic missiles in space. Some call that “weaponizing” space, but it’s really the opposite: It’s preventing space from being used as a nuclear-weapons highway.
Such a system would protect South Korea and Japan from a North Korean missile strike. Israel and other threatened allies around the world would have confidence that America really is providing a “defense umbrella,” a goal to which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the United States is committed.
Were we to deploy a comprehensive missile-defense system, it would be senseless for most nations to invest in offensive nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Such weapons would become obsolete. Those who hope to rid the world of nuclear weapons entirely should think of missile defense as a means toward that end — a better means than reducing our own nuclear arsenal in the hope that foreign despots will be moved to emulate us rather than seek advantages over us.
What if the U.S. takes this approach and, in response, the Russians withdraw from New START in protest? Then we’ll know for certain that the American and Russian interpretations of the treaty were at odds. Negotiators can return to the table and try to hammer out an agreement on which both sides actually agree.
Meanwhile, President Obama says he agrees with national-security hawks on the need for serious missile defense. He should be given an opportunity, between now and 2012, to demonstrate that he means what he says.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.