Anti-missile shield: the next stage

Test failure: Delay would give chance to get law and diplomacy in sync for national security.

July 12, 2000

THE MISSILE killer didn't really fail its test over the Pacific early Saturday. Because two aspects of proven technology faltered, the targeting, sensors and communications that were to be tested were not. This was the third of 19 scheduled tests. The program is delayed, not derailed.

That delay should put the ball in the next president's court. President Clinton wanted to get this irrevocably started, but cannot.

The next step is for Secretary of Defense William Cohen to report to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. Under a law enacted last year, the administration has no discretion on deployment except to say whether it is feasible. After Saturday's debacle, the limited national missile defense is not now feasible.

The law requires creation of the system, no matter if it violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, wrecks warhead reduction talks with Russia or provokes China -- and no matter whether North Korea even develops a long-range missile.

In other words, making this decision by law last year -- without letting the administration use it as a bargaining chip in trying to negotiate a safer world -- was bad strategy and wasted expenditure by the bipartisan Congress and president.

Most of the U.S. strategic community and all the U.S. allies think this is a defense of great cost that might not work against a danger that is uncertain to materialize. It provokes powers the United States is not defending against, and could trigger a worldwide arms race Washington wants to avoid. Not a good idea.

But the administration has no right under the law of Congress to suspend it, only to report that the defense is not yet feasible. That the administration should do.

A future administration continuing to test, but refraining from building the radar, should try to negotiate North Korea's missile test moratorium into permanence, to proceed on Start III talks with Russia and to dissuade China from selling long-range missile capability to Pakistan.

That would take an act of Congress next year, to amend its folly, and arm the next administration to deal intelligently with the real world of evolving dangers.

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