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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Coup de Grace

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

The Democrats’recapture of the Senate may well have administered the coup de grace to President George W. Bush’s plan to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as the first step toward a robust national missile defense (NMD) in a world without arms control. Even before Senator James Jeffords’ courageous act of conscience, international opposition to Bush’s strategic vision was almost unanimous despite frantic administration efforts to win allied and world support, or at least acquiescence. Suddenly, instead of having a Senate controlled by extreme right-wing Republicans exhorting him to ignore foreign objections, Bush will have a Senate dominated by Democrats who share many of the same concerns.

In his May 1 speech at National Defense University, Bush reaffirmed his campaign rhetoric to reject the arms control regime built up over the past 30 years and to replace it with a system of military laissez-faire in which complete freedom of action would presumably result in the most security for the United States. In place of arms control agreements, the Bush doctrine would call for unspecified unilateral reductions in strategic offensive weapons. Unlike treaties, such unilateral actions could be arbitrarily changed at any time and, lacking verification measures, would not add to predictability or stability.

Alarmed at the continuing failure to line up foreign support, Bush followed up his speech with the dispatch of teams of senior officials to “consult” all interested parties but with the understanding that the United States would replace the ABM Treaty regardless of their views. Not surprisingly, all reports indicate that these mock “consultations” were generally counterproductive. NATO could not even be persuaded to give a nod in support of the U.S. position.

Top Russian officials expressed the common complaint that the emissaries and high-level officials in Washington were unable to provide any additional information on such critical issues as the threat justifying this precipitous action, the “replacement” for the ABM Treaty, or the unilateral actions that would replace the START process. In short, Bush essentially asked the rest of the world to give the United States a blank check to do whatever it wishes.

On the home front, in addition to growing skepticism from the media and Democratic members of Congress, Bush’s vision encountered opposition from two unanticipated sources: technical reality and the military. Bush’s inner circle was apparently surprised to discover that there is nothing remotely close to deployment and that the layered defense they proposed could not be operational for a decade or more. Even the closest candidate, the Clinton administration’s unproven midcourse intercept system, which the Republicans had roundly criticized, is years away from deployment. Moreover, the military, which does not appear to be deeply involved in the Bush administration’s planning, is not enthusiastic about being saddled with an open-ended, high-tech NMD that could well prove to be a “black hole” for defense funds that the Pentagon would prefer to spend on conventional force modernization.

In this environment, the switch in control of the Senate could be decisive in protecting the ABM Treaty and the arms control regime. With Senator Thomas Daschle as majority leader, Senator Joseph Biden as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Carl Levin as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, all of whom spoke out strongly in opposition to Bush’s May 1 speech, there will be a profound and continuing debate on the questions the administration’s emissaries could not answer, and public attention will be focused on the consequences of Bush’s vision. No longer will Senator Jesse Helms be able to stifle debate in the Foreign Relations Committee or Senator Trent Lott be able to manipulate the Senate agenda, as he did in orchestrating the rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

True, Bush can still constitutionally withdraw from the ABM Treaty on his own authority. But to take this unprecedented action in the face of majority Senate opposition and almost unanimous disapproval in world opinion would be a truly irrational action for the leader of the world’s last superpower.

With the switch in the Senate leadership having effectively administered the coup de grace to any plans to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, Bush now has the opportunity and the obligation to reassess his plans. Rather than risk the success of his presidency on withdrawal from the ABM Treaty for no purpose, because there is nothing to deploy, he should refocus the NMD effort on the research and development, most of which is permitted under the treaty, necessary for such a system. Concurrently, he should intensify diplomatic efforts to eliminate the perceived missile threat at the source. To regain U.S. leadership, rather than dismantle the arms control regime, he would be well advised to consider bringing START II into force, which should be possible in the new Senate, and to initiating the long-delayed START III negotiations.