Star Wars is back - kind of. Most people assume that Ronald Reagan's vision of a missile shield in space protecting the US against a Soviet nuclear attack has disappeared with the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan.
Yet President Clinton is getting ready to approve the "deployment" of a National Missile Defence (NMD) which is threatening to poison relations with Russia and become an issue in this year's presidential election. In fact, the US has spent $60 billion already developing such a defence and it is likely to cost another $60 billion.
NATO is concerned that a system protecting only American cities would leave European cities more vulnerable as alternative targets and could start off a new arms race.
Opponents of NMD believe it is a colossal waste of money as it may never work. Even if it does work - the last test failed - there are other ways to launch a nuclear attack on America than from space, such as planting a nuclear device in a ship which is anchored in, say, San Francisco Harbour.
NMD is not the same as Star Wars, the nickname for Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), which envisaged an "impenetrable shield" that could knock out 5,000 incoming warheads with lasers and nuclear blasts high up in space.
Some believe that Mr Reagan so terrified Mikhail Gorbachev with his version of Star Wars and its astronomical cost that this led to the break-up of the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union. A brilliant new book, Way Out There in the Blue, by Frances FitzGerald, describes how Mr Reagan got the idea (some films were involved) but let it fade as he turned to negotiating arms reductions instead.
Over the years SDI has turned into Mr Clinton's NMD which envisages 100 interceptor missiles based in Alaska ready to destroy nuclear warheads arriving from a "rogue" state such as North Korea. The system could also be used to knock out Chinese nukes, but that is politely left unsaid, given China's sensitive feelings. A second phase would protect against such Middle East mavericks as Iraq, Iran and Libya.
A commission reported in 1998 that the US could be under serious threat from those countries if they developed medium-range missiles and stuck a nuclear warhead on them. The report by former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was taken all the more seriously as North Korea had test fired a multi-stage missile across Japan.
An alarmed Congress voted that it is now US policy to deploy a nuclear defence and a once sceptical Mr Clinton approved funding for more research. This summer he is to decide on deploying the first anti-missile missiles and if he doesn't, Republican presidential candidate Governor George W. Bush will be accusing his rival, Vice-President Al Gore, of failing to protect the US against the "rogue" states.
But what about Russia? There is a serious problem with NMD and Russia. In 1972, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) which bans either country from deploying a national missile defence system.
The reasoning was that such systems would destabilise the status quo of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and encourage each superpower to develop more powerful nuclear weapons to get past the defensive missiles. By agreeing on ABM, the US and the Soviet Union were able to begin talks on reducing their nuclear arsenals, a process which has continued in fits and starts ever since.
Russia has just ratified the START-2 agreement which will bring further substantial cuts in the nuclear warheads of both countries, and Moscow wants to negotiate START-3 which would bring the number down to 1,500 each (it was 20,000 in 1988).
The snag is that the American NMD system is in breach of the ABM according to Russia, although the Americans have assured Moscow it will still have "the certain ability to carry out an annihilating counter-attack". President-elect Vladimir Putin and the Russian Duma have warned the US not to jeopardise ABM, the future of which Mr Putin and Mr Clinton will discuss in Moscow next June. If the ABM is flouted, Russia will halt any further nuclear disarmament, is the message from Moscow.
Mr Clinton's Republican opponents suspect he is going to do a deal which will limit NMD so that it cannot develop into a real missile shield capable of warding off Russian as well as North Korean or Iraqi missiles. In return, Mr Clinton would secure a further big cut in US and Russian nuclear warheads. It is being called "the grand bargain" and could put the President in line for a Nobel peace prize.
But Senator Jesse Helms, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will have a vital say in the ratification of any change in ABM, has just fired his own missile. For Mr Helms and the hawkish Republicans the US should renounce the outdated ABM. "Mr Clinton's proposal is not a plan to defend the United States. It is a plan to leave the United States defenceless," Mr Helms said this week.
He also warned that the Russians "should not be under any illusion whatsoever that any commitments made by this lameduck administration will be binding on the next administration".
So the scene is being set for an election campaign where George Bush and Al Gore will be vying to see who can best defend America. It will make a change from who can best defend social security for senior citizens.
Copyright 2000 The Irish Times