Published on Sunday, May 6, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Bush Signals a Move to Sidelines on Global Issues
by Richard Gwyn
OF ALL the ways Americans are threatened, the most improbable by far is that some nation, rogue or otherwise, would hurl a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile at it.
The reason is simple. The source of this missile would be known immediately as it was tracked by American radar stations.
Shortly after the culprit had been identified, this country would be obliterated by an American nuclear counter-blast.
Only a dictatorial leader who was both insane and suicidal would commit such an act.
Indeed, this individual would have to be downright loopy to even think of trying to do it. Well before he got to push the button he would suffer an American blast - a non-nuclear one - that would obliterate his missile - and a good deal else.
The mammoth program required to build a long-range missile and a nuclear weapon would be known long in advance. The site would be put under 24-hour satellite surveillance. The preparations for an actual launch could be easily detected. Cruise missiles would streak out from off-shore American warships, backed up by Stealth bombers.
Any rogue state leader who doubts that the U.S. would do this should check on the way the U.S. fired cruise missiles at Afghanistan and the Sudan, or similarly dropped bombs on Libya's Moammar Ghadafi (missing him but killing his daughter).
To hurt Americans - and have a hope of not being detected - the rogue leader would rely on suitcase bombs or toxic chemicals secreted into the U.S.
Yet President George W. Bush has just announced that he intends to spend some $100 billion to build a system to stop incoming rogue missiles.
Objectively, Bush's program is loopy. It creates a highly suspect defence - virtually every test has failed even without the target missiles sending off decoys, as they would in real life - against an insignificant threat.
But Bush, though not one the great intellects of our time, is surrounded by many exceptionally able and experienced advisers.
So what's going on?
Start with the premise that the stated reason for the national missile defence system - to defend against rogue states - cannot be the real reason. Which isn't to say that this isn't a persuasive argument for Bush to be making to American voters, Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the "mad mullahs" of Iran making such convenient hate figures.
To dismiss it as just an excuse to pour money into defence industries is glib, although there's probably something to this - if unconsciously - since so many of those around Bush are ex-corporate heavies.
Nearer to the mark, it's an excuse to spend money on advanced weaponry, which the U.S. needs now that it lacks a credible opponent like the Soviet Union. Much money will be wasted, but there will be technological spin-offs that will reinforce American military supremacy.
The true reason is geo-political, in a distinctively American sense.
Even a semi-credible anti-missile system would restore the U.S. to the invulnerability it once enjoyed - uniquely among great powers in history - because of being a long salt-water distance from any rivals.
That invulnerable America - it existed all the way up to the nuclear age - was an isolationist America.
This doesn't mean that once invulnerable again, America will become isolationist again. It now has all kinds of national interests abroad. But it will be able to decide itself whether and where to get involved, and when to look the other way. What the anti-missile system will do is to disengage the U.S. from the world's problems - except on its own terms and strictly in its own interests.
That Bush should have preceded his decision to abrogate the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty by his withdrawal from the Kyoto environmental accord, is a clear harbinger of this new order.
Indeed, the "new world order" that Bush, Sr. once mused about is now being reborn, but in a misshapen, self-interested form.
The anti-missile system may yet be abandoned. Idealism may rear up from the junior levels within the Bush administration. The so-called CNN effect, or the effect upon decision-makers of scenes of misery in faraway countries, should never be underestimated.
Potentially, though, we are witnessing a change in international affairs as radical as the one just over a half-century ago when the U.S., by its massive effort in World War II, emerged on the world scene as an engaged superpower.
Today, the U.S. is a far more dominant superpower. Tomorrow, it's going to shift to the international sidelines, except when it decides it is in its interest to re-occupy centre stage.
Richard Gwyn's column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.
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