Time to Reason Why

December 2000

By Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

By the time this is read, the United States should have a president-elect who will have neither a popular mandate nor a working majority in Congress. While this will make it difficult for the president to take new initiatives, it may have the consolation of limiting his ability to take controversial, damaging actions. Under these circumstances, President Bill Clinton's wise decision not to deploy a limited national missile defense (NMD) gives the next president adequate time to think long and hard before making an NMD deployment decision that would endanger three decades of negotiated arms control.

One of the interesting features of the recent dreary election campaign was the almost complete absence of reference to the NMD deployment issue. When asked, Vice President Al Gore hedged his position by asserting support for a limited national missile defense while associating himself with Clinton's four criteria for deployment: technological readiness; status of the threat; cost; and impact on national security, including arms control and relations with other countries. Moreover, he emphasized the need to deploy within the framework of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

For his part, Governor George W. Bush criticized the Clinton administration's NMD proposal and called for a much more robust system to protect not only all 50 states but also U.S. friends and allies. While not revealing what kind of system he envisaged, he made clear that he would withdraw from the ABM Treaty if Russia did not modify it to allow deployment. Despite the major differences between the candidates, the press did not pursue the issue because of perceived lack of public concern or interest.

If elected, Gore should have little incentive to deploy in the coming year and probably during his presidency. He has stated that he would follow Clinton's four criteria in making his decision. And there is no chance that any of these criteria (except possibly cost) can be met next year. While the technological basis of the system should improve with time, the system's inherent inability to provide an "effective" defense, as called for by Congress, against even a limited threat will also become more apparent. The perceived threat from "states of concern" will very likely diminish or even be eliminated by vigorous diplomacy, to which Gore is committed. There is little prospect that Russia will be persuaded to amend the ABM Treaty to permit a system it sees as a slippery slope that might threaten its security or that China will be convinced the system is not primarily directed at its minimum deterrent. While he would presumably continue research and development, it is hard to foresee developments that would persuade Gore to authorize actual deployment.

If Bush is elected, a deployment decision next year will also be difficult, despite his enthusiasm for NMD, for the simple reason that there is nothing to deploy. As he has not even identified the nature of the system he has called for, a year will hardly be adequate to define the system's architecture and the additional research and development required. Bush and his advisers should be troubled when they discover that it will take more than a decade before his system can possibly be operational. He will also quickly learn that Russia will not amend the ABM Treaty to permit deployment and that the concerns of the NATO allies and China will not be easily assuaged. Bush should think long and hard about a deployment announcement that would seriously weaken U.S. security internationally and produce nothing but problems to show his domestic constituency in the next four or even eight years.

After examining the issue from a position of responsibility during his first year, Bush and his advisers might at one extreme decide to follow the example of President Richard Nixon, who, after campaigning for a ballistic missile defense, negotiated the ABM Treaty. At the other extreme, Bush might follow the advice of some of his current advisers to move toward a world without arms control where the United States could pursue NMD. Or he might follow the example of President Ronald Reagan, who continued to advocate and throw money at his Strategic Defense Initiative but never authorized either deployment or withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

Without a clear mandate, whoever wins the presidency will have to choose his actions carefully to establish leadership and unify a deeply divided electorate. A highly controversial decision to deploy an NMD will not contribute to this objective. Clinton's decision has given the new president ample time to consider the problem objectively as part of the nuclear policy review both candidates have proposed. Above all, the future president must take a holistic view of U.S. security and not take unnecessary and provocative actions that would do far more harm than good in protecting U.S. security.