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 weapons.
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 reduction.
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 place.
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 species.
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 nuclear weapons.
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 mayhem.
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 no-brainer.
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 plan.