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"Go Slow": The People Speak on Missile Defense
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"Go Slow": The People Speak on Missile Defense

John Isaacs

In an election year, the political barriers to substantive accomplishments in Washington are higher than ever. Political overtones color all issues and tend to thwart compromises necessary to win legislative majorities in both houses of Congress and secure the president's approval. This policy gridlock is especially severe in the last year in office of a two-term president.

With prospects unlikely for action this year on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or further nuclear reductions, arms controllers will look to unlock the policy gears in 2001, when a new president, a fresh set of advisers and a changed Congress are in place. However, even those longer-term hopes could be soured by decisions and events in 2000. This is particularly true if the Clinton administration opts to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) and announces that it will abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty if it fails to conclude an agreement with Russia on treaty modifications.

Ironically, it is the election-year politics that will stall action on other matters of consequence, which could push President Clinton into making this disastrous decision. Defense strength is a traditional Republican issue, and the possibility that the Republican nominee will use hesitance on NMD against the Democrats is high. President Clinton may feel that he has to support deployment for no other reason than to protect the Democratic candidate for president.

However, recent polling data show that the American public is not overly supportive of missile defense, especially when compared with issues like education and Social Security and even when compared with other defense issues, like troop readiness. Though not providing the president the opportunity to ignore the missile defense issue or blithely reject deployment, an appreciation of how the American people feel about missile defense could make it easier for Clinton to accept arguments critical of NMD and delay a deployment decision until the next administration.

Momentum Gained

After years of grudging steps toward national missile defense deployment, the Clinton administration pressed hard on the accelerator in early 1999. Secretary of Defense William Cohen gave national missile defense deployment a great financial and rhetorical boost at a January 20 press conference at which he announced a $6.6 billion increase in the national missile defense budget, bringing the total to $10.5 billion between fiscal years 1999 and 2005. Cohen spoke of a deployment determination in 2000, initial construction in 2001 and the first operational interceptors by 2005. A Pentagon deployment readiness review is currently scheduled for summer 2000.

Congress added to the momentum with a series of votes beginning in mid-March. On March 17, the Senate voted 97-3 in favor of a measure introduced by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) mandating national missile defense deployment "as soon as technologically possible." On March 18, the House adopted the Weldon-Spratt bill, which also endorsed missile defense deployment, by a vote of 317-105. Two months later, the House adopted the Senate version of the bill by a 345-71 vote, and on July 23, the president signed the measure.

The bill appropriated no funds, but it did change the dynamics of the missile defense debate in Washington and increase the pressure on the president to commit to deployment. However, in signing the bill, the president stated that four factors would influence any decision to deploy an NMD system: the readiness of the technology, the extent of the emerging missile threat, cost and arms control considerations.

The next major development came on October 2, when the Pentagon conducted its first national missile defense intercept test over the central Pacific Ocean. The Pentagon declared the test a success: a prototype interceptor launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands struck a re-entry vehicle that had been launched on a modified Minuteman missile from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. Subsequent information, however, revealed that the test was only a partial success because the system originally homed in on a decoy and only then acquired the target warhead.

Despite that recent revelation, the failure of a second intercept test on January 18 and the fact that there is only one more test scheduled before the Pentagon readiness review, the president is still slated to receive a Pentagon recommendation on deployment in June and to make a decision the following month. And though neither the president nor the bureaucracy has come to a firm conclusion on the wisdom of deployment, most observers expect Clinton to give national missile defense the go-ahead, primarily for political reasons.

With the presidential race now in full swing, analysts believe Clinton will try to protect the Democratic nominee-be it Al Gore or Bill Bradley-from charges of leaving the country vulnerable to missile attack. The Republican candidate, of course, will be looking to accuse the Democrats of being soft on defense, of failing to protect the country from "rogue states" like North Korea, Iraq or Iran.

Indeed, the Republicans have already started an assault along those lines. George W. Bush told a Citadel gathering September 23 that his administration would deploy both theater and national missile defenses "at the earliest possible date." He went on to term the ABM Treaty "an artifact of Cold War confrontation" and concluded that if Russia refused to amend the treaty, the United States should "give prompt notice" that it would withdraw from the treaty. John McCain has been equally vociferous. In a major address after receiving the Intrepid Freedom Award in New York on December 7, he argued that "ballistic missile defense is now a national priority" and openly worried that "the administration might find an excuse to delay deployment."

Under these conditions, many analysts think President Clinton will approve missile defense deployment in July simply to take the issue off the table. The reasoning is certainly plausible. Clinton has proved a master at hijacking Republican issues during his seven years in office, taking welfare reform, deficit spending and crime and turning them into Democratic talking points. But the widespread expectation about the president's course of action on missile defense is based on deeply flawed logic.

The Republicans will try to make missile defense an election issue in 2000-as they have twice before-but it will likely not make a difference in the minds of voters. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole tried desperately to raise the missile defense issue against Clinton, abandoning it when it became clear that voters were not paying attention. And in 1998, Republican Senate candidates in California, Washington, North Dakota, North Carolina and elsewhere tried the same gambit to win votes against Democratic opponents, but the issue again proved of no political benefit.

Have American attitudes changed so dramatically that voters will punish Democrats for being slow to endorse national missile defense? They have not, as a careful examination of polling data and focus groups demonstrates. The Mellman Group, a well-regarded polling firm, conducted two focus groups in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 12, 1999. It then conducted a national survey of 1,000 adults at the end of August.<1> The results should put to rest the notion that the president must say "yes" to missile defense in order to save Gore or Bradley.

The Polling Data

The starting point for any analysis of the data is the clear evidence that defense and foreign policy issues are not high priorities for Americans compared to domestic concerns. The Mellman poll disclosed that Americans believe the most important issues facing the country are improving education (26 percent), protecting Social Security and Medicare (21 percent) and maintaining U.S. economic strength (14 percent). Only 7 percent of Americans believe that maintaining a strong military is one of the most important issues facing the nation, and a mere 1 percent believes building a national missile defense system to be one of the most important issues.

When faced with a trade-off on spending priorities, Americans would rather spend money on education, Social Security, cutting taxes and fighting crime than on national missile defense. A whopping 77 percent of the public would spend more on education, compared to 14 percent that would spend more on building a national missile defense. Similarly, 72 percent of Americans believe that saving Social Security and Medicare is more important than missile defense, while 17 percent would opt for missile defense. Fighting crime tops missile defense 69 percent to 20 percent.

Even when asked to place missile defense within a range of military issues, the public does not consider it particularly important. When asked what the top defense priority should be, 34 percent, a plurality, responds that the United States should develop a defense against terrorist attacks. Twenty-one percent of Americans say that increasing the readiness of our troops to fight should be the top defense priority. By contrast, only 10 percent says researching, developing and deploying a national missile defense should move to the top, barely more than the 7 percent that says modernizing U.S. conventional forces should be the top priority.

The survey then moved on to policy choices, comparing missile defense with specific defense budget programs. Fifty-nine percent of the public favors spending more on military training and pay compared to only 24 percent that favor missile defenses. Similarly, spending to develop a defense against terrorist attack is considered more important (56 percent) than is spending on missile defense (28 percent). Only spending to improve U.S. conventional weapons arsenal is deemed less important (35 percent) than missile defense (42 percent).

Especially interesting is the fact that self-identified Republicans consider each of the spending priorities that were tested more important than national missile defense. They gave the highest margin (40 points) to spending on education (64 percent for education, versus 24 percent for missile defense) and the slimmest margin (3 points) to spending on conventional weapons (40 percent for conventional weapons, compared to 37 percent for missile defense).

The survey and focus groups show that support for a national missile defense is broad but shallow. The public generally supports national missile defense but accepts most of the criticisms advanced by its opponents. Those advocating postponing a deployment decision until next year at the earliest argue that it is a mistake to make a decision after only three of 19 scheduled tests of the NMD system have been conducted. Sixty-two percent of the public accepts that argument; only 11 percent do not. Republicans (64 percent) are more likely than Democrats (59 percent) to want all missile defense system tests completed before a decision on whether or not to deploy is made.

The most compelling argument against missile defense, which 74 percent of the public finds convincing, turns out to be cost. The government has spent $120 billion on all missile defense programs since the 1950s, and the systems produced have failed the majority of recent tests. Seventy percent of the public also agrees that missile defense technology is difficult to develop and that the United States should not spend money to deploy the system until it is sure the defense will work. (It should be noted that these data reflect the public's opinion before the January 18 test failed and before the Pentagon revealed that the October 2 test had been only a partial success. Presumably, these arguments would now seem even more convincing.)

The public also wants proof that the system will work as promised and a high degree of accountability attached to spending on missile defense. Fifty-four percent of Americans would require an independent body to annually certify that substantial progress is being made on missile defense as a condition for additional funds and would halt funds if progress could not be demonstrated.

Sixty-six percent of Americans also find convincing an argument that defense contractors and lobbyists are the driving force behind the NMD program, doling out political contributions to politicians so they can "make money" while the "taxpayer is stuck with the bill." Seventy-five percent believes that with the Cold War over, terrorists smuggling weapons into the country pose a more likely threat than a nuclear missile attack.

Other arguments used by skeptics are widely accepted, although by lesser majorities. By 67 percent to 27 percent, the public believes that even if the United States develops a missile defense system, "it is only a matter of time before our enemies develop decoys and counter-measures to evade our defense." Sixty-three percent of Americans agree that "a national missile defense system will create a false sense of security because our enemies can commit acts of terrorism from within the U.S. rather than risk the uncertain success of launching a missile."

In terms of broader policy choices facing the United States, the public still strongly supports arms control, even as an alternative to missile defense. Seventy percent of the public continues to support either the complete elimination (44 percent) or reductions (26 percent) of nuclear weapons, support levels consistent with other polls in past years. Only 14 percent believes that the United States should maintain the number of nuclear weapons currently in its arsenal, and another 14 percent believes the United States should modernize its nuclear forces. There is strong bipartisan support for eliminating or reducing nuclear weapons, with 62 percent of Republicans in favor of elimination (35 percent) or reduction (27 percent), and 75 percent of Democrats in favor of elimination (49 percent) or reduction (26 percent).

When asked to make a choice, 56 percent of Americans agree that "the United States should continue to pursue international agreements to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide, implement a nuclear test ban treaty to prevent other countries from developing more sophisticated nuclear weapons and continue helping Russia dismantle its nuclear arsenal." Half as many, 27 percent, instead would have the United States "spend money to research, develop and deploy a national missile defense system to protect the United States from nuclear missiles launched from another country."

There is another area in which the public urges caution before proceeding with a national missile defense. While supporters of national missile defense have tended to downplay some or all of the Clinton administration's criteria for a deployment decision (status of the technology, threat, cost, arms control considerations), the public agrees to each and every one. The respondents were asked whether each factor is a very important consideration, somewhat important, not too important or not important at all. (See chart.)

As the president moves into the final stages of the deployment decision-making process, technical and policy considerations may well be cast aside for a straight political calculation. On this question, the Mellman Group is crystal clear: missile defense is not an important voting issue for Americans. As is pointed out in the firm's analysis of the data, "Few [17 percent] of even those who support missile defense will vote against a candidate who opposes spending money to deploy such a system." The firm went on to say: "Voters will not use a candidate's position on nuclear missile defense as rubric for determining support at the polls."

Supporting the Polls

The results of the polling data are unusually clear-cut: the public is not going to punish the Democrats in the 2000 elections if Clinton decides to postpone a decision on deployment. But the memory of the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still fresh in the administration's mind, and the president will want support beyond polling data to face the pressure to approve deployment.

Fortunately, compared to the CTBT vote, there are some significant advantages for opponents of national missile defense. First, in the case of missile defense, the target audience is small and consists of those in and close to the Clinton administration; Congress will not play a direct role in this decision. In the case of the test ban, the target audience was much wider and included many conservatives. Second, missile defense opponents have many good contacts with key decision-makers or those close to the decision-makers. As a consequence, statements and letters from scientists and experts that were ignored by conservative leaders during the CTBT debate are much more likely to have an impact this year on more moderate Democrats. Finally, the summer deadline for action on NMD is clear and still several months in the future, allowing plenty of time for debate, as opposed to the test ban treaty, for which no time frame was defined until two weeks before the Senate vote.

There are a variety of strong arguments for postponement: sufficient technical data will not be available by summer 2000 to make an informed deployment decision; the booster rocket for the system will not be tested until fiscal year 2001; the kill vehicle will not be tested until fiscal year 2003; and only three of 19 planned missile defense intercept tests will have been completed, and those will not have been conducted in "real-world" conditions against a full range of targets and countermeasures that could be used by a country capable of developing long-range missiles.

There are also a number of questions concerning the cost of the new system. Administration cost estimates of an initial deployment of a limited number of interceptors have been low-balled. The Pentagon claims that deployment will cost only $12.7 billion over the next five years. However, the cost of a two-site defense in Alaska and North Dakota with 125 missiles at each site, complete with upgraded radars and warning satellites, will be considerably more than the administration admits. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that an expanded system could cost $30-60 billion or more.<2>

Even more important are the often-overlooked international consequences of a decision to deploy. A very negative reaction is likely from Russia, which is strongly resisting modifications to the ABM Treaty. If the decision to deploy is made without its agreement, Russia could well cancel plans to reduce its deployment of nuclear weapons and refuse to agree to additional reductions under START II and III. Focusing on a potential handful of nuclear weapons that North Korea, Iraq or Iran may develop could come at the expense of efforts to limit the larger threat posed by some 20,000 remaining Russian nuclear weapons.

A decision to deploy a national missile defense would also harm U.S. security vis-à-vis China, which has hinted that it will react by speeding up its deployment of a new generation of nuclear weapons systems. For decades, the Chinese have maintained fewer than two dozen long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the mainland United States. A U.S. missile defense system, while ostensibly deployed against a rogue state threat, is perceived by Chinese leaders as designed to undermine China's deterrent force.

Even U.S. allies in Europe, who generally support U.S. foreign policy and security positions, are increasingly concerned about the pending American decision. French President Jacques Chirac was particularly clear in his view that a U.S. missile defense would be destabilizing because it would prompt an arms race: "If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there's a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword.... These [NMD] systems...are just going to spur swordmakers to intensify their efforts."<3>

Many Europeans see the development of a missile defense system following the Senate defeat of the CTBT as more evidence that the United States is adopting a unilateralist approach to foreign policy, regardless of the consequences to European security. As one NATO diplomat said, "This issue could end up driving a stake through the heart of the alliance. First there is the danger that it will cause the Russians and the Chinese to ratchet up the arms race by finding ways to beat missile defenses. But there is also the fear that if the system works, American and European security interests will no longer be bound by exposure to the same threats."<4>

However, these arguments alone will not win the day in a highly charged political atmosphere. President Clinton will need political cover-more than that provided by the polling data-if he is to go against current conventional wisdom. Some protection has been provided in the form of a report by the National Missile Defense Review Committee (a highly credible, independent panel headed by retired General Larry Welch, former Air Force chief of staff) that raises the possibility of delaying the deployment decision from summer 2000 to 2003. At best, the Pentagon could decide next summer on the program's "feasibility," according to the study, but even that "feasibility" decision might have to be postponed. (For the full text of the "Welch Report," see ACT, November 1999.) The failure of the January 18 intercept test further reinforces the report's findings, a point that has not been missed by newspapers across the country, which editorialized in the final weeks of January that President Clinton should postpone a decision that would be based on so few tests and immense political pressure.

The Republicans themselves have provided some further security. When asked in December whether he would criticize Clinton for leaving the deployment decision to the next administration, Governor Bush replied, "No. I might even praise him."<5> The case for delay was also bolstered by two prominent Republican senators, Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), who argued that the decision should be left to the next administration. Republicans are confident that a Republican will be elected president, and Hagel and Smith expressed publicly what other Republicans are saying privately: let Bush or McCain, whom we trust, make the decision.


Despite the polls, the substantive arguments and the political cover, it is not clear which path President Clinton will choose. While opponents of national missile defense can argue that there is no evidence that the Republicans will successfully exploit the issue in 2000, there is no way to prove that assertion, the polling data notwithstanding. Thus, on the basis of a straight election calculation, without regard to the foreign policy implications, the president could decide that saying "yes" is the politically safe course of action.

There may be another path out of the corner into which the president has painted himself-a "third way" that satisfies neither the supporters nor the opponents of missile defense. The president could announce that the United States will deploy a national missile defense, but take no steps to start the clock on withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and postpone any decision to begin site preparations in Alaska until the next administration. The net effect could be to diffuse the issue with Republicans and Russians at the same time, deferring a second level of decision to the next president.

A few months ago, it appeared likely that the president would favor deployment for political reasons, but that decision is no longer a sure bet. What is certain is that with the polling data, the substantive arguments and the political cover provided by the Republicans themselves, the elements necessary for delaying a decision are there.


1. The poll was commissioned by the Council for a Livable World Education Fund and has a statistical margin of error for the sample as a whole of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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2. "Budgetary Implications of H.R. 3144, The Defend America Act of 1996," Congressional Budget Office, May 15, 1996.

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3. Craig R. Whitney, "With a 'Don't Be Vexed' Air, Chirac Assesses U.S.," The New York Times, December 17, 1999.

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4. William Drozdiak, "Possible U.S. Missile Shield Alarms Europe; Allies Fear Arms Race, Diminished Security Ties," The Washington Post, November 6, 1999.

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5. Jim Hoagland, "Some Sure Answers From Bush," The Washington Post, December 19, 1999.

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John Isdaacs is executive director for the Council for a Livable World. [Back to top]

Posted: January 1, 2000