“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Bush Pushes New Strategic Framework, Missile Defenses

Wade Boese

In a May 1 speech at National Defense University, President George W. Bush said that the United States “must move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM Treaty” and replace it with a “new framework.” Bush offered few details about what such a strategic framework would look like, but he reaffirmed his intention to deploy ballistic missile defenses and further reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Arguing that, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world today is “vastly different” than when the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was signed in 1972, Bush said U.S. security needs to be “based on more than the grim premise that we can destroy those who seek to destroy us.” Negotiated by President Richard Nixon with the Soviet Union, the ABM Treaty proscribed nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles and barred the development, testing, and deployment of sea-, air-, space- and mobile land-based ABM systems or components. Without nationwide defenses, both countries had confidence that the other would not risk a nuclear attack, knowing that it would be vulnerable to a retaliatory strike.

In addition to barring the United States from “exploring all [missile defense] options,” Bush charged in his speech that the ABM Treaty “perpetuates a relationship [with Russia] based on distrust and mutual vulnerability” and therefore must be replaced. The president did not detail what should replace the treaty, except to say that the resulting relationship with Russia should be “reassuring, rather than threatening.”

The alternative to the ABM Treaty “might be a framework, might be another treaty,” Secretary of State Colin Powell ventured in a May 14 interview with CNN. “We’re not sure what it is yet. We are not foreclosing any option,” he said.

Bush did not repeat his campaign statement that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty if Russia refused to negotiate amendments to permit a U.S. strategic ballistic missile defense. Nevertheless, he and other administration officials have made it clear that they do not think the accord is useful to U.S. security.

Prior to Bush’s speech, a top State Department official told the Danish parliament on April 25, “We believe the ABM Treaty will have to be replaced, eliminated, or changed in a fundamental way.” When asked on May 11 whether the United States may in the end continue the treaty, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher answered, “I don’t think we have raised that possibility.” He later added, “We have come to the conclusion that this treaty is outdated and not important or relevant to the current strategic situation.”

A key characteristic of the current strategic situation, according to the administration, is that, unlike the Soviet Union, so-called rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles, such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, may not be deterred from attacking the United States by the prospect of U.S. nuclear retaliation.

Without missile defenses, the president argued, the United States and others could be susceptible to nuclear blackmail by rogue states. Citing Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the president said the international community would have “faced a very different situation” if Baghdad had possessed a nuclear weapon, implying that U.S. efforts to form a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait would have been a much more difficult task or would have failed because of the significantly higher stakes of intervening.

To guard against these new post-Cold War threats, as well as to protect against accidental launches of strategic ballistic missiles, Bush said his administration, “working with Congress,” would deploy missile defenses. The president noted he had already charged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with exploring “all available technologies and basing modes” for effective missile defenses in order to protect the United States, its deployed forces, and U.S. friends and allies.

Bush briefly mentioned the prospect of land-, air-, and sea-based defenses and that the administration saw “substantial advantages” to intercepting missiles in the boost phase during the first few minutes of flight, when the rockets are still burning, the missile is moving relatively slowly, and no countermeasures have been deployed. But he admitted that there is still “more work to do to determine the final form the defenses might take.”

Bush did not mention space-based defenses, but Rumsfeld said the following day that, in addition to land-, air-, and sea-based defenses, space-based options “are all things that need to be considered.” Rumsfeld subsequently stated on May 8 that the Pentagon office overseeing missile defenses had identified “eight, 10, or 12 different things…that they think merit attention.”

Though the administration has not yet determined the specifics of its future missile defenses, it has been clear about what the system will not be. Appearing May 6 on NBC, Rumsfeld described as “unfortunate” that some people used the term “shield” in talking about missile defenses, claiming the word suggested greater capabilities than the administration envisions. Instead, Rumsfeld explained the proposed Bush defenses would only protect against “relatively small numbers of ballistic missiles.”

Speaking the day of Bush’s speech, Rumsfeld cautioned that early defenses would “certainly unlikely” be 100 percent perfect. In fact, the secretary noted, “Most systems are imperfect; that is to say for every offense, there’s a defense, and vice versa.”

Despite having declared the ABM Treaty irrelevant and having announced that the United States will deploy missile defenses, in his speech Bush assured other countries, including Russia, that he would not present the world with “unilateral decisions already made,” but consult with other capitals and seek their input on the “new strategic environment.” Prior to his speech, Bush talked by phone with the leaders of Germany, France, Canada, Britain, and Russia, as well as NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. The following week, senior administration officials departed on visits to nearly 20 countries to hold consultations on Bush’s vision of a new strategic framework. (See Missile Defense Consultations Abroad Yield Little Progress.)

Cutting the Arsenal

Although Bush’s May 1 speech focused on describing how the world has changed since 1972 and the need for missile defenses, Bush also said that his new strategic framework would include further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as well as non-proliferation and counter-proliferation activities.

“My goal is to move quickly to reduce nuclear forces,” Bush declared. These reductions are expected to be implemented unilaterally rather than through negotiations with Russia, though Bush would first need Congress to repeal legislation proscribing the president from unilaterally reducing U.S. strategic forces.
As with missile defense, Bush offered only a vague goal, saying that the United States will seek a “credible deterrent with the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs.” An administration spokesperson interviewed May 17 said it is still “too early to talk about numbers.” The Pentagon is currently reviewing how many and what types of nuclear weapons will make up the future U.S. arsenal.

Russia and the United States agreed in March 1997 to begin START III negotiations to limit each of their arsenals to 2,000-2,500 deployed strategic warheads once START II, which imposes a ceiling of 3,500 deployed strategic warheads, enters into force. But those negotiations have not gotten underway because START II has yet to enter into force. During his campaign, Bush said it should be possible to go “significantly further” than the START II cap, but he did not indicate whether he would go as low as the proposed START III levels or Russia’s stated preference for cuts to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads.