Missile Shield or Holy Grail?
Nike-Zeus, Nike-X, Sentinel, Safeguard, Star Wars, X-ray lasers, spaced-based neutron particle beams, Brilliant Pebbles, Ground-Based Midcourse National Missile Defense, Midcourse Defense Segment of Missile Defense. Over the past fifty years America has poured approximately $100 billion into these various programs or efforts to shield the country against long-range ballistic missiles. Yet not one has worked. Not one. Nevertheless, except for the constraints imposed by his own "voodoo economics," President George W. Bush appears poised to pursue the development and deployment of a layered missile defense--as a hedge against more failures--that would force taxpayers to cough up as much as another $100 billion. In December Bush formally notified Russia that the United States was withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in order to "develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks."
Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled Bush's decision a "mistake," a mild reaction that should not disguise the fact that much of Russia's political elite is seething at the withdrawal. Already smarting from America's broken promise not to expand NATO and the US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 (which violated the 1997 "Founding Act" between Russia and NATO), the coincidence of America's success in Afghanistan (obviating the need for further Russian assistance) and withdrawal from the ABM treaty is viewed as yet further evidence of American duplicity.
President Clinton diplomatically explained the Republicans' obsession with missile defense when he observed: "One of the problems they've got is, for so many of their supporters, this is a matter of theology, not evidence. Because President Reagan was once for it, they think it must be right, and they've got to do it, and I think it makes it harder for them to see some of the downsides." That's a nice way of saying that the conservative wing of the Republican Party abounds with missile-defense wackos. I've participated personally in two missile-defense conferences and was astounded by their right-wing, faith-based atmospherics.
Which is why Bradley Graham's engaging narrative of politics and technology during the Clinton years, Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack, seems destined for popular success, notwithstanding its serious conceptual limitations. Graham ably recounts the excessive exuberance of Republicans as they schemed to realize their missile-defense dreams. But he is equally critical of the Clinton Administration's attempt to actually build a missile defense: its "three-plus-three" ground-based midcourse program.
Offered in the spring of 1996, in part to undercut the Republicans, "three-plus-three" provided for three (or four) years of development, after which, if then technologically feasible and warranted by a threat, there would be deployment within another three years. In early 1998, however, a sixteen-member panel, led by retired Air Force chief of staff Larry Welch, condemned the plan as a "rush to failure."
But two overdramatized events later that year demanded even greater urgency. In July, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, led by Donald Rumsfeld, asserted that America's intelligence agencies had woefully underestimated the capability of "rogue" regimes, such as those leading North Korea and Iran, to attack US territory with ballistic missiles within five years. It concluded: "The threat to the United States posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community."
When North Korea subsequently launched a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile past Japan in August 1998, many Americans put aside not only their qualms about the role Representatives Curt Weldon and Newt Gingrich had played in creating the commission, but also their suspicions about the blatantly pro-missile defense bias of most of its members. Although Graham generally portrays the commission's deliberations as unbiased, he does provide evidence that some of its briefers were not.