SDI at 30, Part III


One of the contributors to NR’s special issue was Jeane Kirkpatrick. This was 1999, remember. And she wrote,

Today, it makes no sense at all to grant Russia a veto over our capacity to defend ourselves. We should give notice and withdraw from the treaty [the ABM Treaty]. Without a national and theater missile defense, we are without protection from weapons of mass destruction targeting our cities and blackmailing our policymakers and allies. No president has the right to ignore the common defense.

In 2000, President Bush’s son, George W., campaigned on missile defense. He won. And at the end of his first year in office — in December 2001 — he announced that we were withdrawing from the ABM Treaty.

This is how the New York Times led its report: “When President Bush stepped into the Rose Garden on Thursday morning, he did far more than announce America’s exit from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. He buried an entire era of arms control.”

There was much gnashing of teeth — not so much from Moscow as from Democrats. One of the loudest gnashers was Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said we were making a “tragic mistake,” one that would spark a “massive new arms race.” He threatened to cut off funding for missile defense if Bush went through with withdrawal. The president, obviously, was undeterred. And SDI went forward.

Do you remember the resolution in that Bill Buckley debate, from 1985? “We should go full speed on Star Wars.” That is pretty much what the George W. Bush administration did. The spirit of the administration in this regard was captured by Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, in a 2006 interview with me:

“Everyone’s saying you can’t do anything until you can do everything, and in life I’ve never found that to be the case. To me, first you crawl, then you walk, then you run. And so let’s get on with it. Let’s stick something in the ground and not pretend that it’s perfect.”

In a 2008 debate with John McCain, Barack Obama said something pretty surprising: “I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.” When he got into office, he did not much act like it.

He was sworn in on January 20, 2009. On April 5, the North Koreans staged a missile test. On April 6, the new administration announced that it was canceling the interceptors that the previous administration had ordered for Fort Greely in Alaska. The timing was strange — and appalling, to supporters of missile defense.

Obama was not very interested in homeland defense — defense against long-range missiles. He had other ideas, concerning short- and medium-range missiles. He announced a shift in our strategy in September 2009. Years later, he would find it prudent to shift again.

Oh, is there a lot more to tell — and I’ll resume tomorrow, in Part IV. Thanks.

To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.