Maybe U.S. should abandon restrictive ABM Treaty

June 11, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore may be assuming that the country's complacency about peace in our (and our children's and grandchildren's) time, and the administration's charade concerning defense against ballistic missiles, will prevent this from becoming an important campaign issue. To understand why it should be a central issue, consider two hypotheticals:

After Congress approves normalized trade relations with China, Beijing moves militarily against Taiwan. China invokes the possibility of a nuclear response if the United States interferes, and the U.S. president, governing a nation incapable of defending itself from even a single ballistic missile, is militarily paralyzed.

In 2005 Saddam Hussein reinvades Kuwait, and announces that he has nuclear warheads on six ICBMs capable of striking European capitals. Without being able to offer our European allies defenses against ballistic missiles, the U.S. president probably hesitates to act against Iraq. If he does not hesitate, Congress probably does. And if both want to act, they probably must do so without European allies.

By 2005 the United States could deploy at sea, near Iraq or North Korea, fast interceptors capable of striking an ICBM when doing so is relatively easy -- in the boost phase, when the ICBM is hot, hence easy to target, and slow, hence easy to hit. But the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, signed in 1972 with an entity now deceased (the Soviet Union), prohibits sea-based systems with fast interceptors.

The treaty is larded with ambiguities useful to Russia, which wants to stop U.S. defenses (in order to inhibit America's global power; see the hypotheticals above), and useful to the Clinton-Gore administration, which wants to be stopped from deploying an effective missile defense. The treaty permits sea-based "theater" defenses but not "strategic" defenses. A protocol the Clinton administration accepted from Russia in 1997, but never submitted to the Senate for approval, would severely limit the speed of interceptors.

Furthermore, sea-based systems would be best if served by space-based sensors that could track the early path of missiles. (When Iraq launched Scud missiles during the Gulf war, satellites could detect bright lights but could not provide accurate tracking information necessary for missile interceptors.) The ABM treaty prohibits space-based defenses.

Our European allies worry that U.S. missile defenses that protect only America would encourage a "fortress America" disengagement from Europe. This worry is exacerbated by President Clinton's proposal for a minimalist system (100 interceptors, with one vulnerable radar, in Alaska) that would provide our allies no defense.

It is surreal that the Clinton-Gore policy is to continue treating Russia as a nation with which the United States must multiply bilateral agreements designed to maintain a "strategic balance."

At the beginning of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire was called "the sick man of Europe." Today that title belongs to Russia, which is gripped by a public health crisis without precedent in an industrialized nation with mass education. As its population shrinks and its economy contracts, it is, increasingly, a Third World country that cannot afford even to maintain the First World nuclear arsenal.

The dialectic, now several millennia old, whereby offensive and defensive capabilities alternate in dominating military affairs, did not end with the development of ballistic missiles. The offensive threat they pose will produce increasingly sophisticated defenses. The fundamental question, says Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense under President George Bush, is whether misplaced American reverence for the ABM treaty will enable Russia to restrict America to only those defenses permitted under a minimally modified ABM treaty.

That, says Mr. Wolfowitz, would mean trying to develop defenses "with one hand tied behind our back and four fingers of the other hand tied together." Which is, essentially, the position of the Clinton-Gore administration.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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