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The Boston Phoenix Son of Star Wars

A new political test of who's "tough on defense"

By Michael Crowley

DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

Someday an Arab country will have ballistic missiles. Someday an Arab country will have a nuclear bomb. It is better for the United States and for Israel to reach peace before that day.

-- Palestine Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas

On the morning of September 1, a missile unexpectedly appeared over the Pacific Ocean. American and Japanese officials watched anxiously as the rocket, launched from within the unstable borders of North Korea, arced toward the coast of Japan.

The rocket soared above Japan, splashing down harmlessly in the Pacific. It had been only a test. Yet the launch stunned the United States. It proved that North Korean missile technology has advanced much faster than expected, and that the country's despotic ruler, Kim Jong Il, is closing in on the ability to strike an American city. Unsettling news, especially when you consider that North Korea is ardently trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

The test was just one more piece of evidence contesting the myth that America is safer now that the Cold War is over. In fact, while the threat of US-Soviet nuclear Armageddon is all but gone, the danger of one or a few missiles striking America is growing by the day. The threat comes in many possible forms. A rogue nation such as North Korea, Iraq, or Iran could build -- or purchase -- a missile fitted with a nuclear, chemical, or biological warhead that could strike America. A deranged Russian general could launch nukes under his command (the Dr. Strangelove scenario). And there's always the possibility of an accidental launch: several "prepare to launch" signals recently and inexplicably have been sent to Russia's nuclear forces, and in January 1995 a misread radar caused Boris Yeltsin's "nuclear suitcase" to be activated for the first time. Yeltsin was told he had five minutes to decide whether to counterstrike -- before the alarm was deemed false.

Despite Hollywood's recent visions of doomsday, most of us realize we can't blow up a killer asteroid headed for earth (at least not without Bruce Willis). But few Americans are aware that our government likewise would be helpless against a rocket headed for New York or Los Angeles.

In Washington, a battle is raging over whether to try to change that. A growing chorus of voices is calling for the US to build an anti-missile system to defend itself. Twice this year the Senate came within one vote of calling for a national missile-defense system. In October, Congress packed a whopping $1 billion into its budget bill for anti-missile technology. And in a major national security speech last month, Democratic senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska) -- one of Congress's leading moderates and a likely White House candidate in 2000 -- became perhaps the most prominent member of his party to embrace the idea.

While today's idea of missile defense is a far cry from the wacky Star Wars vision of Ronald Reagan -- which imagined space-based "x-ray laser battle stations" shooting down thousands of Soviet missiles -- it's still a dubious proposition. Supporters now imagine a simpler ground-based system that could shoot down just one missile, or a handful at most -- but cost estimates run up to $60 billion, and the technology has been a laughable failure.

Still, a new foreign-policy consensus may be growing. "There's definitely a political momentum building," says Joe Cirincione, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a missile-defense critic. "It is almost inevitable that the US will deploy a national missile-defense system." The question is whether missile defense is the right cure for what ails us. With the issue promising to loom large in the 2000 presidential campaign, it could be a defining test of the new politics of national security. Republicans, who hammered Democrats during the Cold War as "soft on defense," are dusting off that attack again. To protect themselves, Democrats may have to stop ridiculing missile defense and start taking it seriously. But to protect the country, they must keep their sights on the critical policies that can reduce the need for a missile defense -- and take aim at the Republican failure to support them.

Even before North Korea's startling missile test and the latest round of confrontations with Iraq, calls for missile defense had reached an all-time crescendo. Provoking the cry was a July intelligence report that then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich called "the most important warning about national security since the end of the Cold War."

That report, delivered by a congressional commission of national security experts that was chaired by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, shook long-standing assumptions about how long America has to worry before its enemies build long-range missiles. The so-called Rumsfeld report warned that a button pressed in Iraq, Iran, or North Korea could fire a missile into an American city much sooner than the CIA has estimated. It concluded that those countries could inflict "major destruction" in the US within five years (10 in the case of Iraq), and that the attack could occur with so little warning we'd have effectively no time to defend ourselves.

But if the Rumsfeld report showed the threat to be real, it said nothing about whether missile defense is realistic.

The practical obstacles are huge. Fifteen years and $46 billion since Reagan first rhapsodized about Star Wars, shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, is still the stuff of science fiction. Interceptor-missile tests routinely fail badly; even the vaunted Patriot missile fared pathetically against Iraq's almost comically slow SCUD missiles during the Gulf War (Pentagon and Raytheon propaganda notwithstanding). Republicans say the missile-defense program is stalled because Democrats haven't let it flourish. But even some generals say the technology is moving as fast as it can be pushed, and that the extra $1 billion Congress recently budgeted for it will go to waste. Which raises the question of cost -- even optimistic calculations put a $6 billion price tag on a missile-defense system, and some estimates run 10 times that sum. Finally, some foreign-policy experts warn that anti-missile systems are illegal under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) signed by the US and the then-Soviet Union. If the Russians feel intimidated or betrayed by a US anti-missile program, they could balk at promised reductions in their nuclear arsenals.

Despite these daunting hurdles, growing numbers of respected arms-control advocates and political moderates are saying that the threat warrants giving serious thought to missile defense.

"A lot of the comforting assumptions that the intelligence community was articulating have really been undermined," says Michael Krepon, a leading arms-control expert who heads the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "What is also significant is that people who are on my side of the fence agree."

"If a defense against one warhead is indeed possible, it's worth doing," Krepon argues. "Let's say the cost of cleaning up after one detonation is $10 billion. Is it not cost-effective, then, to deploy a defense that costs $10 billion?" (Boston is, after all, spending more than that to bury a highway.)

And then there was the surprising endorsement of missile defense by Bob Kerrey. Twice this year Kerrey had joined with all but four of his Democratic Senate colleagues in blocking a Republican missile-defense bill. But in a major address before the Council on Foreign Relations November 17, Kerrey said Democrats should be willing to join with Republicans in building a national missile-defense system if Republicans agree to deep new nuclear-weapons reductions. Presumably addressing the delicate politics of the ABM treaty, Kerrey added that the US "should make it clear to Russia's leaders we would build it for accidental and rogue-nation threats."

Kerrey's position is especially significant not just because of his national profile, but because he's likely to challenge Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 (a contest that could also include his homonymous colleague, Massachusetts senator John Kerry). Kerrey's speech had the sweep and rhetorical polish one expects from a man developing a presidential platform.

The year 2000 is a pivotal one for the US missile-defense program. The Clinton White House has kept critics at bay by modestly funding missile-defense research, and it is committed to deciding in 2000 whether to start building a missile-defense shield. If both Republicans and credible Democrats like Kerrey are calling for missile defense, it will be hard for Clinton -- or, more to the point, White House heir apparent Al Gore -- to oppose the idea without invoking the dread specter of weakness.

Just listen to the rhetoric of publishing magnate and likely Republican candidate Steve Forbes, who called the Clinton administration's cautious approach "immoral" in a series of radio ads this spring: "The Clinton-Gore administration inexplicably refuses to protect the American people from the unthinkable."

To Joe Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment, the political pressure will be enough to make Clinton and Gore push the program ahead. "I believe there's a strong tendency in the Gore camp to remove this issue from the political terrain by compromising on it," Cirincione says. "It's not that the threat warrants it, and it's not that the technology exists to support it. It's pure politics. And the driving factor is the presidential election in 2000."

"Pure politics" may be an exaggeration -- the world looks a lot more dangerous than it did a couple of years ago. Either way, it's clear that missile defense is moving closer to the political mainstream. It's becoming bad politics for Democrats to ridicule the idea. But Democrats can still avoid the perception and reality of being "soft" on defense by paying attention to the broader needs that anti-missile technology seeks to address.

For all its macho posturing on missile defense, the Republican Party often has been a dismal combatant in what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls "the new war." That's the larger fight against terrorism and the spread of deadly weapons of mass destruction -- from nukes to nerve gas to anthrax. It's the war against the Osama bin Ladens and Aum Shinrikyos, as well as the Iraqs and North Koreas of the world. And it's as grave as the Cold War.

A new and small-minded isolationist streak has infected the Republican Party, causing it to recoil from international commitments that could help contain these dangers. The GOP has balked at spending to counter the alarming spread of missile technology and weapons of mass destruction. Congressional Republicans fight to disempower the United Nations. They oppose efforts to stabilize Russia and safeguard its "loose nukes," and to pay the salaries of disgruntled Russian scientists tempted to peddle their talents to the highest bidder. Republican leaders even tried to kill off an international treaty controlling chemical weapons.

A real commitment to these programs would be both less expensive and more effective than building a missile-defense system. After all, a missile shield doesn't do anything against a suitcase nuke floated up the Potomac River, or an aerosol can of anthrax sprayed in Times Square on New Year's Eve. The question demands careful consideration from both parties. But the best Democratic response isn't a defensive compromise with Republicans. It's a clear and forceful argument that being strong on defense means a lot more than crying "Incoming!"

Michael Crowley can be reached at mcrowley@phx.com.

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