Clinton's foresee-no-evil defense policy

June 27, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- A tendentious prediction is the Clinton administration's latest justification for its dilatory approach to defending the nation against the sort of ballistic-missile attack that could be launched by a rogue nation. The administration says that such a threat is at least 15 years distant. The historical record of such predictions is not reassuring. Neither is the method by which this one was produced.

In 1906, three years after the flight at Kitty Hawk, Simon Newcomb, an eminent scientist, declared it was demonstrable -- ''as complete as is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be'' -- that ''no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machine and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly long distances through the air.''

In 1922, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, said, ''It is highly unlikely that an airplane, or fleet of them, could ever successfully sink a fleet of naval vessels under battle conditions.'' In 1939, an admiral said, ''As far as sinking a ship with a bomb is concerned, you just can't do it.''

Albert Wohlstetter, a noted strategic thinker, writes that when in 1937 a congressional committee published an ambitious attempt to forecast technological developments of the next 10 to 25 years, it missed, among other things, nuclear energy, antibiotics, radar and jet propulsion.

In 1945, MIT's Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, reported to the Senate concerning the possibility of developing an intercontinental (3,000-mile range) missile capable of delivering an atomic bomb precisely enough to hit a particular city: ''I feel confident that it will not be done for a very long period of time. . . . I think we can leave that out of our thinking.''

Many experts were wrong about how swiftly the Soviet Union would acquire atomic and then hydrogen bombs. U.S. intelligence underestimated the progress of Iraq's nuclear program.

Now the Clinton administration suggests wagering the nation's safety on a sanguine prediction that seems to have been produced by a premise designed to induce complacency. The premise is that at least 15 years will elapse before a ballistic-missile threat to the 48 contiguous states can be developed indigenously by a rogue state such as Iraq or North Korea.

Now, leave aside the oddity of leaving out, as second-class entities, Alaska and Hawaii. And leave aside the imprudence of ignoring the potential of threats from China and Russia, where the regimes could be changed on short notice.

However, note the intelligence estimate's emphasis on indigenous development of ballistic missiles by lesser powers. That scants the possibility that a nation capable of producing a device for mass destruction might be able to purchase on the international market a means of delivering that device to the continental United States.

The joy of self-deception

Fifteen years ago Roberta Wohlstetter, author of a brilliant study of why we were surprised at Pearl Harbor, wrote an essay titled ''Slow Pearl Harbors and the Pleasures of Self-Deception.'' Her subject was the role a victim's cherished beliefs and comforting assumptions often play in deceiving him.

Beginning in 1919 the British, flinching from the thought of another war and eager to minimize military spending, adopted what came to be called ''the 10-year rule.'' They predicted there would be no major war in the next 10 years. And then they began making the same ''prediction'' -- actually, a thought generated by a wish -- annually. Not surprisingly, beginning in 1933 British estimates of the numbers of first-line German aircraft consistently erred on the low side.

Roberta Wohlstetter also cites ''the even slower and more reluctant recognition by American intelligence that the Russians were not interested merely in having a minimum deterrent force of 200 ICBMs, nor even satisfied with the same numbers as our own,'' but instead wanted much more. Far from being reluctant participants in the arms race, they continued to ''run along quite smartly long after we had stopped.''

Not surprisingly, long-term U.S. projections of Soviet ICBM silos were too low from 1962 to the end of the 1960s, and then became even more erroneous. The 1962 prediction was 85 percent of the number that materialized, and in 1969 we predicted less than 20 percent of the number the Soviet Union actually built.

Soothing assumptions about the good faith and shared interests of antagonists are natural to democracies, as is the desire to spend money on things other than defense.

Getting a democracy to do what does not come naturally requires leadership. To get that for the defense of this democracy, a different commander in chief is required.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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