Does President Bush Have the Guts to Abandon a Bad Idea?
Despite early stumbles, George W. Bush has the potential to be an
effective foreign policy president. But his willingness to back off from
the "Star Wars" missile defense, which has been soundly rebuked by our
allies, will be the test of his ability to lead.
Although poorly prepared for his world leadership role by a woeful
absence of foreign policy experience or even the benefit of tourist
travel, Bush is an affable and curious fellow who's capable of cramming
on the essentials. On last week's trip abroad, he proved open to
acknowledging that even the world's greatest power must go along to get
along when it comes to dealing with other powerful nations, a number of
which also possess weapons of mass destruction.
That much is clear from Bush's meeting with Russian leader Vladimir V.
Putin, after which Bush pronounced the former KGB leader as "a man deeply
committed to his country and the best interests of his country."
It was a bold and honest recognition of the humanity and skill of an
adversary, akin to Ronald Reagan's appraisal of then-Soviet leader
Mikhail S. Gorbachev after their first meeting at Reykjavik. Recall that
moment when Reagan came out into the hall to report to his shocked,
hawkish aides that he and Gorby had just agreed to eliminate all nuclear
Unfortunately, aides to both men cooled their leaders' enthusiasm for
that sensible project, but their wisdom launched the dismantling of the
cold war and at least led to the last serious spate of nuclear arms
Today, with the continued existence of massive nuclear weapons
arsenals and the deterioration of control over the spread of weapons
technology and material, the world is in many ways an even more dangerous
Despite the end of the cold war, the US and Russia still stand
poised to destroy all life on Earth. Russian control of its nuclear
weapons industry is fitful at best; the risk of accidental launch is
real, and the recruitment of unpaid former Soviet weapons scientists and
the selling of nuclear weapons-grade material to even less stable regimes
is alarming. So-called rogue nations such as North Korea and Iraq are
said to be developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass
destruction, and the historic tension between India and Pakistan has
spurred a nuclear arms race that threatens the survival of humans as a
As a result, it's possible to be pessimistic about controlling and
then eliminating nuclear weapons--the aim of arms control--and in
desperation consider a go-it-alone effort at building a "shield" against
That such a shield will never work, however, has been well known since
the failure of the nuclear pumped X-ray laser developed at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in the 1980s, which promised what lab
scientists referred to as Buck Rogers space fighting machines. Before the
bad news came in that the X-ray laser was a bust, nuclear physicist
Edward Teller had managed to convince President Reagan that a magical
security solution was at hand. But the X-ray laser project has been
abandoned, and antimissile defense is back to relying on hitting a bullet
with a bullet, a game in which the offense, with its maneuverability and
decoys, will always prove the winner.
Another problem with missile defense, even if it could be made to
work, is that one side's defense appears as offense to others. That's why
Richard Nixon, one of the most skilled of modern US foreign policy
leaders, warned that the danger of building a shield is that others will
view it as not just protecting the US but as a means of thwarting
another's retaliation to a US first strike. Thus the end of the concept
of "mutually assured destruction," which has kept the superpowers in line
for four decades.
For example, China, which has abided by the terms of the test ban
treaty and which has been content with a puny intercontinental ballistic
missile force of primitive liquid-fueled rockets, is now threatening to
expand its program in the face of Bush's commitment to an antimissile
program. The nuclear forces of the US and Russia, with their nuclear
warheads based on a triad of land, sea and air forces, would survive such
a first strike. Not so with a country like China, which would be faced
with the ghastly prospect of using or losing its nuclear missiles in the
face of an attack, real or imagined.
This is not an argument lost on hawks in China, who, in the face of
Bush's missile-defense talk, are pressuring for a rapid modernization of
the Chinese nuclear force to make it less vulnerable to US attack.
Bush has dismissed arms control as a "relic" of the cold war, but
abandoning the antiballistic missile and other treaties is the easiest
way to provoke a new cold war with many players, led by China. Missiles
are the true relics of the cold war; they have no operative military role
in the absence of a face-off of the superpowers.
The focus on missile defense represents a denial that the real threat
to the security of the American people comes from terrorists and has
nothing to do with developing an antimissile system. Even if an effective
system could be built to intercept nuclear-armed missiles--and there's no
evidence, after twenty years and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of
dollars, that it's possible--it would not make us safer from the attacks
of terrorists, be they state-sponsored or freelancers.
And for terrorists, the ICBM would hardly be their weapon of choice.
Any nation responsible for firing a nuclear-armed missile at the US
would be obliterated quickly as a matter of established US policy.
That's why terrorists would seek to conceal the base of their operation
and the sponsoring country and instead rely on far more primitive weapons
and delivery systems.
The likely terrorist strategy would be to smuggle into half a dozen
US cities primitive nuclear bombs, which are simpler, easier to produce
and more reliable.
Or, why go nuclear at all when biological and chemical warfare can
more reliably terrorize a civilian population? As the Oklahoma City
bombing demonstrated, even a fertilizer bomb constructed by a couple of
scientific illiterates and transported in a rented truck can create
The emphasis on the ICBM threat is a knee-jerk response that equates a
Soviet-style threat to that of weaker nations and the terrorists they
might support. The Bush Administration has frequently cited the
Commission to Assess US National Security Space Management and
Organization--the so-called Rumsfeld Commission--to support the view that
North Korea, Iran and Iraq could conceivably field a few unreliable and
inaccurate ICBMs, and thus the need for a missile shield. Yet according
to Richard L. Garwin, the commission, on which he served, stressed that
those same countries "already possessed short-range cruise or ballistic
missiles that, if launched from ships against coastal cities, would pose
an earlier, more accurate and cheaper threat to the US population." He
went on to say that a nuclear or biological weapon "could be delivered by
a ship that need go no closer than the harbor to devastate a port
city--without any missile at all."
That is well understood by Donald Rumsfeld, who was the commission's
chair and is now secretary of Defense. But inexplicably he has supported
the deployment of an antimissile program, even if we have no reason to
expect it to work. Clearly, missile defense is valued as an illusion of
safety rather than as an example of the real thing.
Dealing with the threat of terrorism is a complex matter involving
first-rate intelligence utilizing the most sophisticated surveillance
technology as well as old-fashioned on-the-ground spying. It requires
extensive international cooperation to control the materials needed by
such groups to create weapons of mass destruction. It would be far better
to spend the hundreds of billions that will be eaten up by an antimissile
program on those efforts, and yet the inescapable conclusion is that
politicians don't support this approach because such measures are a
less-exciting sell to the public.
It is time to cut our losses on this program.
As our most trusted allies have pointed out to Bush, antimissile
defense is an expensive and dangerous distraction from the work at hand:
how to stop the spread of horridly destructive weapons in the hands of
terrorists that are not made the less dangerous because they are
low-tech, cheap and easily deployed.
Bush seems at times to be a realist, and the notion of quietly phasing
out the antimissile program while at the same time strengthening,
expanding and ratifying the existing arms control treaties, should be a
If Bush reverses himself and takes on the feathers of the dove, he
will be in a fine tradition of Republican presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon,
Ford, Reagan and his own father.
Republicans, less vulnerable than Democrats to attacks from the
weapons hawks, make good peacemakers when they come to their senses.
The good news is that Bush has finally been to Europe. One can only
hope that while there he learned something from other world leaders about
the importance of arms control and the folly of his antimissile defense