Politics driving phantom threat of rogue missiles

June 07, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, there is a sort of wistful quality to President Clinton's travels. As the most powerful man in the world, he is treated with far more respect and cordiality abroad than at home.

There is, of course, a clear precedent. A generation ago, President Richard M. Nixon learned that foreign adventures were far more rewarding than sitting in the White House fending off the growing demands for him to come clean on Watergate. He found that foreigners couldn't understand what all the fuss was about then just as they don't understand now why Americans made such a huge brouhaha out of the Monica Lewinsky episode.

But Mr. Clinton clearly has some specific political goals in the attempt to build stronger antimissile defenses that was the principal official reason for his mission to Moscow. It is fair to guess that the president, quite understandably, wants to burnish his record on foreign policy and national security questions in his final months in office. And it is equally obvious that he wants to help shield Vice President Al Gore from the Republican complaints about how the Democrats always end up weakening our national defense posture.

As a practical matter, however, Mr. Clinton's trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't make a lot of sense. Usually summits are called essentially to formalize deals already agreed upon by working groups of officials. In this case the sole result of any importance was a statement of the status quo.

Mr. Clinton wants to amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 to allow new systems to be deployed as a protection against the nuclear weapons of rogue states. Mr. Putin wants to keep the ABM treaty in place and attack the problem in cooperation with the U.S. but from some different direction. The Russian fear clearly is that any significant new antimissile system deployed by the United States would force Russia into a similar effort and thus set off a new arms race that Russia cannot afford.

The whole controversy seems to rest on some questionable premises. For one thing, there is no reason to believe Mr. Clinton could accomplish anything substantial toward building a missile shield in the few months he has remaining in office. Even if it were feasible, the Congress has something to say about it.

Nor is there either the time or the proper context for the United States to do the international politics involved in an undertaking as important as abrogating the ABM treaty. Russia is no longer a superpower so it might be possible to impose the U.S. view on Moscow without the kind of negotiations that were essential during the Cold War. But plunging ahead in the face of the strong reservations of European allies would be imprudent.

So this sudden focus on missile defenses and the threat posed by North Korea or Libya, or whoever, must be seen as largely political. But what is far from clear is whether anyone in the American electorate is paying any attention.

On the contrary, the rule of thumb in politics is that foreign issues are important only when there is some direct threat to national security. And the fear that the North Koreans may develop the kind of rockets that threaten Chicago with a nuclear warhead is far down the list of voter concerns this year. Most Americans are enjoying the boom in the economy and concerning themselves with the kind of issues, education and the environment, that always get more attention when voters are not worried about how they will pay their bills.

It is true, of course, that the presumptive Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush, has raised the antimissile defense issue with a proposal of his own. But there was some political purpose there, as well. The Texas governor wanted to reassure Republican conservatives that he would be a strong president on national defense. And, by posing with people like Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, Mr. Bush wanted to suggest to the electorate at large that he was a heavy candidate who would not be out of his depth in foreign and national security policy.

But the presidential election is not going to turn on the missile defense question. And neither is the way Bill Clinton is treated in the history books.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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