Politics & Policy

Missile Defense Is for Wimps

A ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into its silo in Fort Greely, Alaska.
When it comes to national security, there’s no time like mañana.

Last week, the major media focused on issues of global consequence — like whether Mitt Romney and his “prep school posse” engaged in forcible hair-cutting almost a half century ago. Most journalists had little time or patience for the issue preoccupying the majority on the House Armed Services Committee: whether Americans should have the right and capability to defend themselves from missile attacks.

Of course, the Associated Press covers just about everything, no matter how trivial, so it did produce a brief dispatch, emphasizing — in typically objective fashion — what it saw as the real news: “Republicans injected presidential politics into the debate, questioning President Obama’s commitment to missile defense.”

The unmitigated gall! Just because Senator Obama, in January of 2001, said on television, “I, for example, don’t agree with a missile-defense system,” is that any reason to question his commitment to missile defense? Besides, views . . . evolve. In 2008, presidential candidate Obama pledged to cut $10 billion from missile defense — about $1 billion more than the U.S. was spending on it at that time. Some Republicans tried to spin that, too, as suggesting a less-than-robust commitment to missile defense.

#ad#More recently, President Obama, not realizing he was speaking into a “hot mic,” told Russian then-president Dmitri Medvedev to tell now-president Vladimir Putin that Obama will have more “flexibility” on missile defense after November’s elections. Let’s be honest: There are Americans who oppose the U.S.’s remaining permanently vulnerable to a Russian missile attack. Medvedev and Putin find this attitude insensitive — so much so that the chief of the Russian general staff has said that if Americans persist in seeking the capability to defend themselves from Russia, “a decision to use destructive force pre-emptively will be taken.”

For some unfathomable reason, Senator Jon Kyl took that amiss. For more than a quarter century, Kremlin leaders have “wanted to prevent the U.S. from developing effective missile defenses,” he wrote, but the right to self-defense should not be given up — certainly not “as a quid pro quo for the yet-to-be-realized benefits of ‘re-set’ with Russia.” Take a chill pill, Jon!

Because you’re busy and eager to get back to more important matters — such as the sudden “evolution” of Obama’s views on gay marriage — let’s cut to the two facts you need to know about the current missile-defense brouhaha: (1) NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently pointed out that more than 30 countries have acquired or are working to acquire ballistic-missile technology, and that this represents “a grave and growing threat.” (2) The U.S. has missile interceptors based in California and Alaska — not enough of them, if you ask hawks, but what else would you expect hawks to say? In any case, those western-based interceptors can probably protect Hollywood and Berkeley. So riddle me this: Why are Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee now also pushing to spend money on a missile-defense site on the East Coast? Other than New York and Washington, what is there to defend on the East Coast?

Besides, General Charles Jacoby, the head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress earlier this year: “Today’s threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so.”

#page#Spot on. Today’s threats do not require that. As for tomorrow’s threats, we can worry about them tomorrow. When it comes to national security, the lesson we should have learned since 9/11is this: There’s no time like mañana.

Now, there is intelligence (it’s not top secret, so I won’t have to kill you if I tell you: The Defense Department’s “Iran Military Power Report of 2010”) predicting that not tomorrow but by 2015 Iran is likely to have intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States — including the East Coast. That means if we build an East Coast site after the Iranians acquire that capability, we’ll only be vulnerable to a missile attack from Iran for a few short years. Most Americans can deal with a little additional danger. We’re not a nation of wimps!

One more scenario not to lose sleep over: the possibility of a short-range missile being launched from a ship in the Atlantic. Who would do such a thing? Terrorists? Maybe you haven’t heard, but the War on Terror is over. As for Iranian proxies of the sort who suicide-bombed the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983 and plotted recently to blow up a restaurant in Georgetown, frankly I’m more concerned that the rates on federally subsidized student loans could rise above 3.4 percent.

#ad#True, the 2004 report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack called a missile attack from a ship an extremely serious risk. But let me tell you something in strictest confidence: The guys on these commissions are geeks — scientists and engineers who never took a single college course in “conflict resolution.” So why would we listen to them about missile defense and the threat to our communities and children?

Finally, as the AP points out — in the very first sentence of its dispatch, because it’s really important — by attempting to spend more money for missile defense, Republicans are “rejecting  . . . Democratic complaints that the . . . project amounts to wasteful spending in a time of tight budgets.”

Count on the AP to fearlessly expose such hypocrisy! I’ll bet you a dollar — I can’t afford more in this time of tight budgets — that some of the people trying to lavish taxpayer money on missile defense are tightwads when it comes to truly critical issues such as guaranteeing that all Americans have access to “free” contraception. Perhaps they’ve forgotten what the U.S. Constitution says about the inalienable right to contraception. As for the federal government’s constitutional obligation to defend the lives of the American people — I think that was repealed a few years back. I think I learned that in college, in Conflict Resolution 101.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Clifford D. May — Clifford D. May is an American journalist and editor. He is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ...

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