Politics & Policy

SDI at 30, Part III

Editor’s Note: This week, we are running a series by Jay Nordlinger on missile defense. It has been 30 years since Reagan gave his speech announcing the project. What was his vision, and how has it fared? For the first two parts of the series, go here and here.

The president who followed Reagan was his vice president, George Bush. The president who followed him was Bill Clinton — who was no fan of missile defense. He put the brakes on the program immediately. As Rich Lowry writes in his book on the Clinton years, he “slashed funding for missile defense roughly in half.”

‐As I mentioned in Part II, National Review put out a special issue on missile defense. That was in February 1999. One of our contributions was a brilliant essay by Mark Helprin, the defense analyst, novelist, and all-around intellectual and man of letters. Have a taste (a strong one):

To the question of how the United States would deal with a desperate, accidental, or renegade Russian missile launch, or with a future Iranian or North Korean attack arising from inexplicable though not unexpected madness, or with nuclear brinksmanship from a confident and aggressive new China with fleet ballistic missile submarines and MIRV’d ICBMs, the answer is that it would do nothing because it could do nothing.

What is our policy? That is our policy, to do nothing, to be capable of doing nothing, to abdicate, to prevaricate, and to fear.

Have a further taste:

The crown jewel of arguments against strategic defense is that it will undermine and then destroy reliance upon the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which in these parlous years has prevented a nuclear exchange, based as it is upon the sound concept of deterrence. It isn’t just that strategic defense might encourage a first strike, opponents argue, but that in doing away with MAD it opens up the prospect of war-fighting and God knows what other changes in the doctrines of the most dangerous standoff in the world. That is why the ABM Treaty is sacrosanct, and why the current administration willfully handicaps even the elements of strategic defense that it is forced to allow, crippling in range, speed, and communications the weapons it then ridicules for their inadequacy.

The ABM Treaty was, of course, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972. And, just as Helprin said, it was held “sacrosanct” by the Democratic party, and other anti-Reaganites.

‐In April 1987, Reagan sent a letter to William A. Rusher, the publisher of National Review. He thanked Rusher for participating in an advisory group. There had apparently been a meeting, which Reagan attended. He wrote,

There was much good advice in that session and a number of suggestions we’ll put in action. I still, however, have problems with the ABM treaty. For one thing our allies have a great concern about that. I can tell you though I will not let the treaty or anything else hold us back. If we agree to any times for deploying etc. they will be based on our own knowledge of when we believe we’ll be ready which is still down the road a way.

‐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.


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