Moscow trip seeks elusive security goal

Clinton pursues anti-missile shield in a dangerous era

June 01, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - This weekend the leader of the world's only superpower will go to Moscow as a supplicant, seeking Russia's permission to defend his people from nuclear attack.

Back home, some of those people think President Clinton's mission is entirely appropriate - not just his desire to shield his citizens, but also his deference to a country whose prestige has sharply waned in recent years.

But not everybody.

Clinton's visit to Russia highlights one of the most enduring, divisive and portentous U.S. national security debates of the past half-century.

The argument's central questions are the same today as in the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized research into the "Project Defender" anti-missile system:

Should the United States persist in its total vulnerability to enemy nuclear missiles? Or should it respond to the perceived threat in the manner of powerful states throughout history, by trying to mount a vigorous defense?

At immediate stake are perhaps $60 billion in U.S. technology and hardware contracts, as well as votes in the November election. Republican George W. Bush favors a vigorous missile defense covering the whole country. Democrat Al Gore, by contrast, supports research into a limited shield aimed at potential attacks from lesser states such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya, which are believed to be developing nuclear weapons.

But over the longer term, Washington's latest consideration of a missile defense could generate profound disruptions to global security, said arms specialists on both sides of the debate.

Opponents fear that deployment of an anti-missile shield could divide the United States and its European allies, goad China into a Soviet-style arms buildup and shatter the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty agreed to in 1972 by the United States and the Soviet Union.

That accord, which bans all but small anti-missile systems and which President Clinton is asking Russia to loosen, has anchored the global balance of nuclear power since the Nixon administration.

"It is too provocative, too threatening to the entire structure of nuclear weapons," said John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

Naysayers also question the effectiveness of even a highly sophisticated anti-missile system. So what if the United States were safe from rocket attacks, they say. Terrorists or rogue states could simply truck a nuclear bomb into a U.S. city.

Those favoring a missile defense paint equally dire scenarios, arguing that the threat of nuclear attack from so-called "rogue" states, perhaps under the sway of erratic leaders, has escalated significantly. The fear is that those nations might not be deterred by America's offensive nuclear might, which many believe kept the Soviet Union's missiles in their silos for three decades.

"The cardinal requirement of U.S. policy should be to give our president the widest range of practical, applicable choices that he can make in the context of whatever crisis he might face," said Baker Spring, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "When you have no defense, as president your options are going to be a lot more limited."

Clinton-Putin summit

In his two-day summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, which will begin Sunday, Clinton will try to blaze a middle path between American missile-defense hawks, who want to scrap the ABM Treaty without regard for Russia's wishes and forge ahead with a potent shield, and doves, who fear that even a limited anti-missile defense would upset the nuclear balance.

Clinton wants Russia to agree to amend the ABM Treaty to allow a limited anti-missile system for the United States - 100 Alaska-based missiles initially and perhaps another 100 later - and a similar setup for Russia. The administration has tried to reassure Moscow that such an array would be effective only against small nuclear arsenals and would not negate Russia's ballistic power.

Few analysts or U.S. officials expect Clinton to make progress in the face of domestic opposition and Russian skepticism.

Last week, Gen. Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the Russian military staff, called changes to the ABM treaty "unacceptable" and said the topic "should be withdrawn from the agenda."

But everybody agrees that the issue won't go away soon. Last year Congress passed and Clinton signed a bill declaring that it is U.S. policy to deploy a national missile defense, although the legislation is silent on the timing.

Clinton has promised to decide this year whether to proceed with deployment; the next test of the anti-missile "kill vehicle" is scheduled for July. But even if Clinton decides that further research and testing are needed before a missile defense is built, the next president is expected to continue to face uncertainties about U.S. safety from ballistic threats and pressure from Congress for progress on an anti-missile barrier.

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