Clinton NMD Decision Welcomed Abroad, Reactions at Home Are Mixed

Wade Boese

World leaders from Europe to Asia welcomed President Bill Clinton's September 1 announcement that he would not deploy a limited national missile defense (NMD) system, but the response from U.S. politicians was mixed. While congressional Democrats, many of whom had called on the president to defer a decision, strongly supported the announcement, some long-time Republican advocates of missile defense criticized the action. Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush quickly issued statements on the announcement but revealed little of their own plans.

Russia and China, the two leading opponents of U.S. missile defense plans, reacted positively but with relative reserve to the announcement, presumably reflecting an understanding that U.S. plans have been put on hold rather than shelved permanently. Russian and Chinese official press services reported, respectively, that Russian President Vladimir Putin said Clinton's announcement will help "strategic stability," while a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman described the decision as "rational." Both statements made it clear that the U.S. action did not remove the NMD issue as a point of contention.

China fears the U.S. system's real aim is to counter Beijing's small force of some 20 ICBMs, while Russia worries the proposed system could prove to be a "slippery slope," leading to much more capable and robust defenses that could eventually threaten its nuclear deterrent. Pentagon plans call for the U.S. defense to be comprised of 20 missile interceptors initially, but to expand to 100 interceptors within two years of deployment and then perhaps to as many as 250 total, split equally between two sites in Alaska and North Dakota. The system would violate the 1972 ABM Treaty and a subsequent 1974 protocol, which together prohibit national defenses against strategic ballistic missiles and limit the United States to a single regional defense located in North Dakota.

Meeting earlier this summer in Beijing, Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin had issued a joint statement July 18 criticizing U.S. NMD plans as "seeking unilateral military and security superiority." The two leaders warned that the program "will give rise to most serious negative consequences" and that any move to undermine the ABM Treaty would "trigger off another round of arms race."

A U.K. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report dated July 25 made a similar point, warning that a U.S. missile defense would undermine strategic stability if Russia and China opted to respond by "enhancing their offensive nuclear capabilities." A classified U.S. national intelligence estimate, delivered to the White House the second week of August, also reportedly cautioned that Beijing could accelerate its strategic modernization plans and Russia could halt cooperation on non-proliferation efforts in response to a U.S. missile defense deployment. Concerns like these, shared across Europe, have cultivated wide-spread skepticism of and opposition to the proposed U.S. shield.

Not surprisingly, Clinton's announcement was received well throughout Europe. The French and German governments characterized the decision as "wise," while Italy's prime minister said it was "positive." British foreign minister Robin Cook termed Clinton's action a "measured approach," and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson described the decision as a "prudent course of action."

In his speech September 1, Clinton said that the United States "must" have allied support for its missile defense plans, and he acknowledged that the NATO allies "have all made clear" their preference that the United States pursue its missile defense plans without abrogating the ABM Treaty. By deciding against deployment for now, Washington will get "time to answer our allies' questions and consult further on the path ahead," Clinton said.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 25, Secretary of Defense William Cohen repeatedly emphasized the necessity of allied backing for the U.S. defense to be effective. Without forward-deployed radar systems, which are planned for Britain and Greenland, Cohen said the United States would not be able to "see the missiles coming." Cohen testified that he believed U.S. allies would support Washington's plan if Russia could be won over. At the same time, he deemed it more likely that Russia would agree to modify the ABM Treaty if all U.S. allies supported the system. The defense secretary concluded that he believed Moscow's goal so far has been to "divide" the United States and its allies on the issue.


Domestic Response

Democrats in both houses of Congress hailed the president's decision, emphasizing that they did not oppose missile defenses but agreeing that deploying an unproven defense at the expense of relations with key U.S. allies and Russia could undermine U.S. national security. Congressman Tom Allen (D-ME), who organized a July 25 letter with 60 other representatives calling on the president to defer his decision, stated September 1 that Clinton had made a "wise, thoughtful decision."

Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Carl Levin (D-MI) both welcomed the additional time created by Clinton's decision to engage in further talks with Russia to win its agreement to modify the ABM Treaty. Biden, who joined with 30 Democratic senators on July 26 to demand that Clinton not take "any steps toward deployment at this time," said Clinton's action will permit time to "perfect our political approach to the ballistic missile threat, as well as our technology." Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) crossed party lines by also endorsing the president's decision, stating that a missile defense "cannot develop in a vacuum" and "must move forward on four parallel tracks—technology, Congress, our allies, and the Russians." There will be "dangerous consequences," Hagel stated, if one of the "tracks" is left "incomplete."

Not all Republicans shared Hagel's opinion. His Senate colleague, Jon Kyl (R-AZ), described the decision as a "capstone to a string of poor decisions that have left us defenseless." A spokesman for Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) charged the administration had already deferred the decision for "the last eight years."

Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA), a fervent supporter of missile defenses, attacked Clinton as putting off "the day that our families will be protected from the threat of missile attack." After accusing Clinton and Gore of dragging their feet, Weldon called for a leader who "will stand up" and tell the world that the United States will deploy a missile defense.

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush declared within hours of Clinton's speech that he, if chosen president, would develop and deploy an "effective" missile defense at the "earliest possible date." The Texas governor said he welcomed the "opportunity to act where [Clinton and Gore] have failed to lead" and pledged that he would seek a defense to protect not only all 50 states but also "our friends and allies." Bush, who has claimed he would withdraw from the ABM Treaty if Russia would not modify the accord, provided no details as to what type of system he would pursue, though he has indicated he would explore all options, including laser-based systems.

Gore, in a statement released the same day, said that he agreed with Clinton's decision and that he would use the additional time to persuade Moscow to amend the ABM Treaty. Yet the vice president also stated he would not allow Russian opposition to block deployment if the defense was "affordable and needed." Gore also said he would work to ease Chinese concerns and would oppose defenses that "threaten to open the gates for a renewed arms race with Russia and a new arms race with China."

The vice president also welcomed the time made available for additional testing of the system before a deployment decision, which he said could be made at any time during the testing process. The extra time, according to Gore's statement, would provide the "opportunity to be more certain" that the NMD technologies would "work together properly."