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Missile Defense Plan Short on Substance

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
May 2, 2001
Newsday

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President George W. Bush's speech on missile defense yesterday was long on rhetoric but short on substance. It left unanswered even the most rudimentary questions-from the kind of defenses to be developed to how deep to cut our offensive nuclear arsenal.

On one thing, however, the president was crystal clear: The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is dead. The treaty, Bush said, "enshrines the past" and no longer serves "our interests or the interests of world peace." In its stead, he proposes to erect a new framework "to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world." What this new framework entails, and whether it would be binding on the United States and others, were matters Bush left unaddressed.

President Bush justified the need for a new framework on the grounds that weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them over long distances continue to proliferate to "some of the world's least responsible states." But that formulation greatly overstates the threat to the United States.

Most of the three dozen countries that possess ballistic missiles today possess missiles with ranges of less than 600 miles, and many of them-including Britain, Israel and Poland-are American allies. The one country that may soon acquire the ability to hit the United States with long-range missiles is North Korea. But the other two much-talked- about rogue states-Iran and Iraq-are still years away from building long-range missiles.

More broadly, since the end of the Cold War, more countries have abandoned nuclear weapons and missile programs-including Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and South Africa-than have succeeded in acquiring them. The world is a dangerous place, to be sure, but it is much less dangerous than when the Cold War was still at its height.

Even if the missile proliferation problem is as dire as President Bush suggests, are missile defenses the best response? Not really. The administration itself admits that missile defense technologies are not likely to work well for years to come. Moreover, strategies aimed at preventing proliferation are equally as important. The president briefly acknowledged that such nonproliferation efforts can be useful, but he said nothing about what he was prepared to do on this front. Why not engage North Korea on its missile activities? Especially since, when it left office, former President Bill Clinton's administration was on the verge of negotiating an agreement halting that country's medium- and long-range missile programs.

In emphasizing the importance of missile defense, Bush skirted the question of how U.S. and Russian offensive nuclear forces fit into the new framework.

Despite expectations to the contrary, he did not announce any deep or unilateral reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which, at 7,200 weapons, today remains at Cold War levels. He did not even indicate a willingness to match reductions to the 2,000 to 2,500 weapons level that Clinton proposed in 1997.

This silence on offensive weapons is especially worrying in view of the fact that Russia's vast nuclear arsenal and infrastructure-consisting of thousands of nuclear weapons deployed throughout its territory, many hundreds of tons of nuclear materials and tens of weapons complexes in states of disrepair-still pose the single largest threat to U.S. and world security. Not only do missile defenses offer little prospect of protecting Americans against this problem, their deployment without agreed upon constraints will aggravate the threat.

Finally, since Russia has announced it will respond to Washington's abrogation of the ABM Treaty by withdrawing from all its nuclear arms control obligations, what constraints on Russian and U.S. forces will be left? Bush's new framework leaves that issue unanswered as well.

Indeed, its main purpose, or so it seems, is to abandon the very constraints that have provided Russia and the United States with the predictability about each other's capabilities and intentions that has helped to mitigate their nuclear confrontation in the past and fostered cooperation on managing their nuclear relationship today.

Perhaps the administration is stating its maximalist position in order to get the best deal possible on building a new, cooperative regime with Russia.

But there was precious little in Bush's speech to indicate that is his intent.

But if the new framework is simply designed to provide cover for abandoning the ABM Treaty, the president is going to take the country down a bitter road.

It simply makes no sense to discard agreed-upon rules of the road that have served us very well for more than 30 years so we can build defenses that have yet to be proved effective.

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