Star Wars II: Here We Go Again
If you stopped worrying about the bomb when the cold war ended, you were probably surprised to learn that two of the hot-button issues of the eighties--arms control and missile defense--will top the agenda at the Clinton/Putin summit on June 4-5. A central issue in Moscow will be how to reconcile Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal for deep cuts in US and Russian nuclear arsenals with the Clinton Administration's fixation on developing a National Missile Defense (NMD) system.
Clinton has pledged to make a deployment decision this fall, after the Pentagon and the White House analyze the results of the next "hit to kill" test of the missile defense system, slated for late June or early July. The system failed its most recent test, conducted in January, while an allegedly successful test conducted last October was made possible only by the fact that the kill vehicle was guided to the right spot by a large, easy-to-find decoy balloon.
The Clinton/Gore proposal is a far cry from Ronald Reagan's Star Wars scheme, which was designed to fend off thousands of Soviet warheads at a cost estimated by former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire at up to $1 trillion. In contrast, this missile defense plan is meant to deal with a few dozen incoming warheads launched by a "rogue state" like North Korea, at a projected cost of $60 billion. But despite the NMD's seemingly more modest goals, it is every bit as dangerous and misguided as the Reagan scheme, threatening to unravel thirty years of arms-control agreements and heighten the danger of nuclear war.
NMD's surprising political revival is rooted in the three Cs of contemporary US politics: conservative ideology, Clintonian cowardice and corporate influence. These short-term pressures are in turn reinforced by an ambitious long-range military objective: the misguided quest for a state of absolute military superiority.
The strongest push for missile defense has come from Reaganite true believers in conservative think tanks, especially the small but highly effective Center for Security Policy. On Capitol Hill, the NMD lobby is spearheaded by new-look conservatives like Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who led last fall's successful Republican effort to defeat the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Fresh from that victory, the NMD lobby is now seeking to destroy the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty as the next target in its campaign to promote "peace through strength rather than peace through paper," as Kyl put it in a recent speech.
The right-wing crusade for missile defense has received aid and comfort from Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who have decided that looking "tough" on defense is more important than protecting the world from weapons of mass destruction. Support has also come from the lumbering behemoths of the military-industrial complex: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing, which are desperately seeking a new infusion of taxpayer funds to help them recover from a string of technical failures and management fiascos that have cut their stock prices and drastically reduced their profit margins.
NMD's military boosters see the system primarily as a way to enhance the offensive capabilities of US forces, not as a defensive measure. In its revealing "Vision for 2020" report, the US Space Command--a unified military command that coordinates the space activities and assets of the Army, Navy and Air Force--sings the praises of outer space as the ideal platform for projecting US military dominance "across the full spectrum of conflict." Pentagon hard-liners have a more immediate military goal: using NMD as a shield to protect US forces in interventions against states like North Korea (whose missile development effort, it is worth noting, has been on hold for almost two years).
A growing number of moderate-to-conservative Democrats are also supportive of a limited NMD system. Whether or not missile defense is an effective response to alleged threats, it seems to offer a sense of security to some members of Congress, who lack the expertise and inclination to question the fevered threat projections of the US military and intelligence establishments.
While at least some of the motives of NMD advocates may be understandable, they are also disastrously misguided: Even Clinton and Gore's "limited" system is unnecessary, unworkable and unaffordable. The mere pursuit of an NMD system could pose the most serious threat to international peace and stability since the height of the cold war. Russian President Putin has emphatically stated that any US move to withdraw from the ABM treaty will lead Moscow to treat all existing US/Russian arms agreements as null and void. And China's chief arms negotiator, Sha Zukang, has warned that if Washington goes ahead with an NMD deployment designed to intercept "tens of warheads"--a figure suspiciously close to the eighteen to twenty single-warhead ballistic missiles that represent China's entire nuclear deterrent capability--Beijing will not "sit on its hands."
In short, the official Clinton/Gore Administration position on NMD is that we should jeopardize the best chance in a generation to reduce the world's nuclear arsenals in order to preserve the option to deploy a costly, technically dubious scheme designed to defend against a Third World missile threat that does not currently exist and may not ever materialize. To understand how we got into this mess, we need to take a look at the genesis, "death" and resurrection of Reagan's Star Wars dream.