The presidential campaign may be heating up, but Republicans and Democrats are sounding remarkably alike on at least one important issue. Candidates on both sides want to build a national defense against missile attack.
The idea is sound, but a politically motivated rush to carry it out could do more harm than good. The technology for a missile shield isn't ready, and there's another, larger problem: Building it too fast risks damaging our relationship with Russia and could fuel nationalist fervor just as a Russian presidential election approaches.
A missile defense was once a Republican idea, and, predictably, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has pledged to begin deploying a system soon after taking office.
But the Clinton administration has also announced plans for a limited version capable of intercepting a few warheads and set to be ready in Alaska by 2005. Vice President Al Gore has not strayed from that position.
The administration hopes to reach a formal decision on its plan by the spring and to begin work before the Alaskan soil freezes in the fall, with official groundbreaking in the spring of 2001. Somewhere along that time line, the United States would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits a nationwide missile defense.
Despite its political appeal, a spring 2000 decision to build such a shield makes little sense technologically. Earlier this fall, the Pentagon successfully maneuvered a missile to strike and destroy a target warhead. But only 3 of a planned 19 tests are to be complete by next spring. Some technology for the system has yet to be developed, requiring tests to use jury-rigged rockets, and the program is short of parts. In 1998, a panel of defense experts headed by Larry D. Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, described the compressed development schedule as a technological "rush to failure." It reiterated that conclusion several weeks ago.
The diplomatic dangers are even more compelling. Deciding to break the ABM Treaty would fan anti-Americanism in Russia just as the furor there over NATO's war against Serbia could be expected to be ebbing -- and just as Russian voters get ready to choose a new president next summer. That atmosphere could easily help elect a hard-line candidate, and the new government might retaliate by suspending work on bilateral programs intended to secure Russian nuclear materials and by refusing to take further steps to reduce the size of Russia's decrepit yet dangerous nuclear force.
The prospects for Russian economic reform might also suffer if the country's leaders decided to increase military spending. Finally, an embittered Russia might retaliate by selling nuclear and ballistic-missile technologies to rogue countries.
The United States does have good reasons to build a missile defense eventually. The ABM Treaty was intended to curb the superpower arms race of the cold war, and much of its basic logic no longer applies. The number of countries capable of attacking the United States with long-range missiles is growing; North Korea may soon be in this club.
Russia's concerns about missile defense, while partially understandable, are exaggerated. The small system that the administration is considering would not threaten Russia's nuclear deterrent. If Russia rejects reasonable efforts to reach an accommodation, the United States should eventually withdraw from the ABM Treaty.
But for now, we shouldn't have to choose between building a missile defense and maintaining good relations and cooperation on nuclear security with Russia. Before deploying any such system, we should work with the new Russian president to try to modify the treaty.
We may have to consider steps like reducing American nuclear forces, suspending the steps toward eastward NATO expansion and otherwise demonstrating to leaders in Moscow that the proposed system is a response not to their missiles, but to weapons from countries like Iraq and North Korea.
Rushing a decision on missile defense during a presidential year, when tempers are short in both countries and the necessary technology is not even ready, is nothing short of foolhardy.
James Lindsay and Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellows at the Brookings, Institution, are coauthors of the new book "Defending America: The Case, for Limited National Missile Defense" (Brookings).