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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Bush Administration Stresses Commitment to Missile Defense
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Wade Boese

During their first weeks in office, President George W. Bush and his top national security officials emphasized repeatedly their commitment to building ballistic missile defenses, though they offered no schedule or details on what type of defense they would pursue, admitting those decisions have yet to be made.

In his campaign, Bush declared the United States "must build effective missile defenses…at the earliest possible date." Such defenses, according to Bush, should be designed to protect all 50 states, deployed U.S. forces, and U.S. allies and would not necessarily be limited to land-based interceptors, like the proposed Clinton system, but could employ other technologies as well, such as lasers. Speaking at the January 26 swearing-in ceremony of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush listed defending the United States from missile threats, among other growing threats, as one of his top three defense policy goals.

Both Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was also sworn in January 26, have portrayed missile defenses as nothing short of an obligation to the American people. Making his first official trip abroad, Rumsfeld on February 3 told other high-level defense officials attending the 37th Munich Conference on Security Policy that building a missile defense was "not so much a technical question as a matter of the president's constitutional responsibility" and that it was "in many respects…a moral issue."

Likewise, Powell remarked to reporters on February 9 that "it would be irresponsible of us not to move forward with technologies" for stopping ballistic missiles. Powell repeated this assertion two days later in an interview on CBS, saying the United States should not shelve the defense because of criticism that it is too difficult or controversial.

Yet both secretaries have acknowledged that no plans are yet on the drawing board. Deflecting questions about a timetable, Powell stated February 9 that an assessment must still be made of the "various technologies that are out there," and then the administration needs to "come up with a concept." Powell added, "I can't tell you how long that will take," saying it was in Rumsfeld's hands.

On his flight to Germany, Rumsfeld told reporters that the administration was "not in a position to talk specifics." Three weeks earlier, at his January 11 confirmation hearing, Rumsfeld said, "I know a lot about the threat…but I've spent much less time on the ways of dealing with it, and that is something I've simply got to wrap my head around."

A White House-ordered review of strategic defensive and offensive programs, which was signed by Bush in the third week of February, will help guide the Pentagon in developing its missile defense options, according to an administration official interviewed February 23. The official said the review could be completed by mid-summer.

Powell implied that the administration was not going to rush finalizing its missile defense plans, explaining that it would act in a "deliberate way, examining technology to make sure it works, understanding the cost implications of what we are doing, and understanding the arms control and diplomatic considerations." There would be "more than adequate time" to consult with other countries about U.S. missile defense plans, Powell declared, though he added that "we are not going to get knocked off the track of moving in this direction as long as the technology points us in that direction."

Interviewed on Fox News on February 11, Rumsfeld, who has said a missile defense "need not be perfect," similarly suggested there would be no hurried push for deployment, saying the technologies behind a defense would need to "evolve in a way that we can be reasonably confident [that it will work]." He also stated that deployment should happen when it "makes the most sense for us and for our friends and allies."

Deployment of a national missile defense would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which proscribed national defenses against strategic ballistic missiles and outlaws the development and testing of sea-, air-, space-, or mobile land-based components for such a defense. Negotiated by President Richard Nixon, the treaty sought to prevent an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union by barring defenses that could spur an offensive build up by either side.

As a presidential candidate, Bush said he would try to amend the treaty to accommodate a future U.S. defense through negotiations with Russia, but Moscow staunchly rejected similar entreaties from the Clinton administration. If Russia refuses to amend the treaty, Bush has declared he would withdraw the United States from the accord.

Rumsfeld, who described the treaty as "ancient history" in his confirmation hearing, has said the United States should not continue to remain "vulnerable" by not deploying a defense. On February 2, Rumsfeld said he had "little doubt" that the most cost-effective and technologically advanced defense was not one that could be designed within the limitations of the ABM Treaty.

In a February 4 interview aired on ABC, Powell acknowledged that at some point in developing a defense "we will bump up against the [treaty] limits." When that happens, Powell said the United States will try to negotiate with Russia, but he cautioned that the United States would need to "hold out the possibility that it may be necessary to leave that treaty if it is no longer serving our purposes, or if it is not something that we can accommodate our programs within." But Powell conceded that this scenario is "not something that's going to happen tomorrow" and that there would first be "full consultation" with U.S. European allies, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and China.