The Bush doctrine on missile defense

Policy proclaimed: An intention, not yet a blueprint, to renegotiate arms control on new realities.

May 07, 2001

THE COLD WAR ended a decade ago but not until last week did the U.S. president call for an end to the world arms control regime it spawned, to be replaced by one reflecting current realities.

Most discussed of those is the possible imminent ability of a middle-sized tyranny such as Iraq or North Korea to harm the United States sufficiently to deter Washington from intervening against it in a regional struggle. Less discussed is that Russia is no longer seen as an equal power.

To deal with this, in his celebrated speech to the National Defense University in Washington last Tuesday, President Bush avoided tearing up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). Neither did he order deployment of an unproven national missile defense shield.

Rather, he called for a grand renegotiation of arms control arrangements with a priority of stopping nuclear proliferation and a predilection toward a national missile defense. To jump-start it, he dispatched high-level diplomatic missions to allies and to Russia and China.

Mr. Bush consigned the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), which brought stability for decades, to history. He called for an agreed end to ABM, which is not the same as ending it.

While Mr. Bush proclaimed his intention of erecting anti-missile defenses, he professed not to know which ones might work, beyond a preference for intercepting missiles on the way up, not down.

The main difference from campaign pronouncements was that unilateralism was abandoned. "These will be real consultations. We are not presenting our friends and allies with unilateral decisions already made," he said. He offered cooperation with Russia and the need to reach out to China.

Allies are dubious or resigned. Russia and China believe themselves the real targets. Russia considers ABM essential to the "architecture" of arms control; that is, all other agreements are built upon it. China calls the new policy destabilizing, provoking an arms race.

The debate with Congress and the public will run parallel to international discussions. It is still unclear whether the missile shield could ever provide security, or is valuable for more than brandishing in negotiations.

Taken at face value, the proposal looks like a gamble that would starve weapons procurement for more palpable dangers, wreck existing arms control and alienate many countries. The benefits are iffy, the costs certain.

What President Bush really did was give urgency to these concerns. Consultations there will be. If there are good arguments against proceeding beyond research, the administration will soon hear them.

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