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Missile Defense: What It Is

05.04.2000 | POLITICS

Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy debates in America have been decidedly low-key. NATO expansion involved an extremely active Polish lobby, but for the most part citizens weren't consulted and they didn't seem to care either way. After fifty years of hot and cold war, people want to fix the schools and let the diplomats take care of rogue states or whatever it was that threatens us now.

When the Republicans swept the House in 1994, most of us focused on the domestic consequences. Precious little attention was paid to the possibility that the GOP was still opposed to international cooperation and arms control. Hawks were supposed to be relics of the past, like oil crises and the Red Army. We were all arms controlling internationalists now. Right?

The Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was a much needed shock. Suddenly, we were smacked awake to the facts that foreign policy still mattered, that the world was still loaded with live nuclear triggers, and that there was a difference between the parties. A big difference, it turned out. Hawkish GOP instincts--epitomized by the ever sophisticated Jesse Helms--not only succeeding in squashing the Test Ban Treaty, but also re-hoisted the banner of missile defense, which had been buried since common sense killed it during the first Reagan Administration.

Republicans love missile defense for different reasons. First, it represents jumbo vats of pork. Running high into the tens of billions of dollars, a nationwide antiballistic missile system (ABM) would help keep the high-tech military complex well fed and burping for a generation. The research and development outlays are pure pulp for the West coast firms who would develop the goods. Job creation would be minimal for such a price tag, but industry profits would be phenomenal.

Second, it provides the illusion of mastery. Under a functional shield, Republicans fantasize that the US could with impunity order the world to its liking. It would offer the advantages of superpowerdom in the twenty-first century without the dangers. The US could continue to protect its "interests" as it saw fit and avoid the risk of retaliation against the mainland. One cake in the belly, and one on the table.

Third, it represents an extension of two long philosophical traditions in American political thought: exceptionalism and isolationism. There is a strain in American conservatism that simply refuses to accept the logic of history and technology, that refuses to accept that the US could be as vulnerable to threats as its lesser, un-American enemies.

While it is true that the argument for the deployment of an ABM system represents something of a bipartisan consensus in Washington, it was the Republican Party that forced the issue out of hibernation. It is also Republicans who are arguing for a full national system, including a space based one along the lines of Reagan's Star Wars plan. And it is the Republicans who are urging that the US unilaterally pull out of the 1972 ABM Treaty with Russia, upon which twenty-five years of arms control currently rests.

The ABM Treaty with Russia institutionalizes the perverse fact of the nuclear era that defensive weapons are destabilizing while offensive weapons designed to destroy entire cities are stabilizing peacekeepers.

This is the logic of deterrence, which has kept the nuclear balance for decades: If two states are equally vulnerable to attack, then they will be very afraid to initiate war, because they will be destroyed just as surely as their victim. But if one state is guarded, then they could conceivably launch a first strike and survive the consequences, assuming that the defensive shield works.

If the other state--the one without a shield--is unsure of its retaliatory deterrent, then it may consider a pre-emptive attack to avoid being hit decisively first. Doubts lead to doubts, and suspicion feeds off suspicion. It is an undesirable cycle, and the ABM Treaty ensures that it never begins.

But wouldn't an ABM system be geared toward the threats of small states, and not Russia or China? That is the argument coming from Washington. But in international relations, especially nuclear politics, arguments mean little. Power is All, and the Russians have made it clear that arms control depends on maintaining the ABM Treaty, on grounds that even a limited system could later be expanded into a larger one capable of threatening Russia's shrinking arsenal. China has made the same case, as have France and Britain, although more quietly.

If the US were to pull out of the ABM Treaty and unilaterally deploy a shield, the dominoes would fall. START-II would be null and void, as would START-I. The Chinese would respond by beefing up its deterrent, thus fueling the arms race in Asia. European NATO allies would be further alienated and would speed up the development of defense policy independent of NATO. The Nonproliferation Treaty--which is dependent upon arms control between the superpowers--would dissolve. Shifting alliances and arms racing would define the post-ABM Treaty geostrategic scene. In short, the world would be one scary fucking place.

Because there does exist a bipartisan consensus, bullheaded opposition against any variant of missile defense--based upon either technological or strategic grounds--is no longer a responsible position. Better is to support the current Administration's approach, one of patient give and take with the Russians to see if some sort of compromise can be reached. Clinton will be going to Moscow this summer with the hopes of making a deal that would leave the arms control process intact while allowing for a limited ABM system. If he succeeds, then the right wing will have less room for maneuver and will be less able to paint the Democrats as soft on defense.

Such a compromise is thus fiercely opposed by the Republicans, and they are hoping that the Russians remain intransigent. To them, US policy should not be restricted by international agreements or the concerns of other states. They believe that in a world of proliferating missile technology, the US can retreat behind a wall and protect itself with a remote control from the Pentagon.

This is nonsense. More than ever, the US needs the help of other states to counter the threats of proliferation. And there are still the massive arsenals left over from the Cold War, which constitute national security threats graver than a handful of Third World dictatorships with primitive nuclear programs.

At some point in the future, large scale missile defense systems will play a constructive role in world affairs. As we dismantle our arsenals, nations can work together to create a safer, defense-dominant world. But that lies in the future. Right now we need to stay the path on the arms control process and avoid new arms races. If we have to delay ABM or limit its scope to meet these objectives, then so be it.

About the Author
Jonah Weiss has written about arms control for Freezerbox and is a frequent contributor to numerous small magazines.
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