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And Now, Your Missile Defense Forecast

How have the political trade winds shifted on the issue of missile defense?

June 2, 2000

How have the political trade winds shifted on the issue of missile defense?

National missile defense was supposed to be a “done deal” just a few months ago. Secretary of Defense William Cohen was leading the charge, supported by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot who deployed his shock troops all over the world to deliver a clear-cut message to the allies. The U.S. President seemed determined to deploy a national missile defense system to protect his own country — and deal with the “rogue” state threat. Lest the Democrats be considered weak-kneed on national security in the upcoming Presidential elections, the Clinton Administration announced that there would be no deferral or equivocation on this key decision.

But both the State and Defense Departments’ top leaders soon found out that the Europeans hated the American lectures. They didn’t see the threat (or the suitable technology). Worse, the Europeans feared the consequences of tearing down the existing arms control regime — even if unintended. To Washington’s consternation, the European policy makers’ reaction was stronger and longer-lasting than even insiders had predicted.

Facing this European comeuppance, the Washington lobbying machine recoiled in some shock. It had tried all along to portray this issue as one where the United States had had a long, reasonable and public debate on missile defense. The strategy, vis-à-vis the obstinate Europeans, was to tell them simply that they had missed their opportunity to weigh in while official Washington was making up its mind.

But then, the sands rapidly shifted— and the Washington debate itself has burst wide open again. As if to add insult to the injury, a series of test delays — and even reports of testing fraud — have exposed the fragility of the technological aspects of the proposed defenses. Expert reports started piling up, rebutting sightings of ten-foot tall North Koreans and warning of countermeasures that could easily defeat the interceptor rockets.

Amidst all this hoopla, Senate Republicans — afraid President Clinton would trade away Star Wars options for deep cuts in Russian nuclear forces — delivered a “demarche” to the Clinton administration: any deal that the President would strike with Russian President Putin at the upcoming Moscow summit would be dead on arrival. The Russians, who had been ambivalent, now realize that Bill Clinton may not own the bridge that he has been trying to sell them.

Now, in just the past few weeks, three former U.S. national security advisors have all come out swinging at the president. Henry Kissinger, Robert McFarlane and most recently Zbigniew Brezinski have all penned op-eds telling Mr. Clinton that it would be a grave mistake to commit the nation to a dramatic new national security policy in the waning weeks of his term. And former CIA director John Deutch, former secretary of defense Harold Brown and former deputy defense secretary John White joined the delay chorus.

Then the Los Angles Times disclosed a still-classified CIA assessment warning that construction of a national missile defense could trigger a wave of destabilizing events around the world — possibly endanger relations with European allies.

Governor George W. Bush delivered another blow to the Clinton plan with his announcement that as president he would implement deep reductions in nuclear forces while deploying missile defenses — offering the Russians at least part of what they want and the possibility that he might prove as reasonable on the issue as his father. Bush also argued against any “hasty decision” by Clinton.

As if cooperating in a conspiracy, the North Koreans and the Iranians have not tested any missiles ever since their 1998 launches seemed at the time to validate the concerns of missile defense proponents. Instead of facing a solid wall of missile shield advocates in the usually smoothly cooperating worlds of industry, policy and punditry, President Clinton now finds himself surrounded by critics on the left — and the right.

Given that kind of cover, one wonders whether he might actually come out with the right decision. Delaying a decision for now would seem to be the best decision he could make, no matter how glorious the results might be of the next “son-of-Star Wars” test set for July.

But then, we should all remember that the timelines for his present decision on the missile shield project are but a result of campaign politics. They were dictated by the “logic” of the 1996 presidential campaign when an increasingly desperate Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, pulled one of the oldest cards of the political trick book — faulting the Democrats for being soft on defense.

Bill Clinton sought to fend off that transparent charge by boxing himself in to a timetable that would have him decide before the 2000 race got seriously underway. It would be a shame if this all-too-transparent ploy really were to guide the nation’s defense future.