The Pentagon staged a preemptive strike against a Carnegie think tank seance on national missile defense, being held across the river at the same time. The military briefers immediately blushed. Their charts referred to "rogue states," and just the day before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had announced that there ain't no such animal anymore. Countries that give us grief will henceforth be known as "states of concern."
The six experts convened by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, equally divided between friends and foes of the shield, agreed on one point. Their unanimous verdict was that President Clinton's plan for a limited missile defense is a turkey. They reiterated a concern that does not faze the Strangeloves of the Senate: It won't work. As is, the "kill vehicle" can't differentiate between the incoming missile and its accompanying decoys. Don't mention such negative natterings to the Republican caucus.
No one either at the Pentagon or Carnegie mentioned that the system also may be unnecessary. It was designed to foil a nuclear attack from the recovering rogue state of North Korea. North Korea's leader, so lately a monster but now morphing into something less sinister, could be in the process of going straight.
No one at either gathering pointed out how foolish we would look if we spent $60 billion building a system against a country we can no longer count on to try to take out Los Angeles or Seattle.
Nor has there been in the Senate a discussion of the loony underlying assumption--that any nukes aimed our way will have a return address such as "If undeliverable return to sender" so that we could instantly vaporize whatever "state of concern" sent it.
None of this is of concern to Senate Republicans, who burn to pour concrete and excoriate fainthearts who grumble about need and workability. Democrats who used to pounce on military extravagance are cowed and tell impressionable strangers they fear retaliation from mild-mannered Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who pushed through the Senate a bill ordering Clinton to deploy the shield as soon as it is "technologically feasible."
We must look to the past for reassurance that nothing irretrievable will happen. The history of missiles in this country is one of unbroken insanity. Clearly, there is something about strategic weaponry that unhinges men's minds. It may be the ultimate guy thing--"boys with toys." The latest episode, the paving-over of a bleak island called Shemya off the Alaska coast, is just the latest chapter in a zany saga of otherwise sensible men addled by the heady combination of gadgetry and doomsday.
Just go back to 1978, to the time of Jimmy Carter, when that sober man who claimed to be wise in the ways of nukes considered putting the new MX missiles on trucks and having them driven around the country to various out-of-the-way military bases, to show their mobility. Sen. John Glenn, the famous astronaut, sought to improve the proposal. He said, "We could truck missiles on interstate highways all over the U.S. rather than making Utah and Nevada ground zero."
For those whose hair stood up straight at the thought of getting stuck in traffic on an interstate at rush hour behind an MX missile, Glenn had this soothing thought: "Any danger from a nuclear weapon going off is not a consideration here," he said. And "in the extremely remote event of one catching fire, it would not go ricocheting around the country. It would burn in place." Feeling better?
The truck idea did not fly, so Carter went to trains. He decided the MX missiles should have their own railroad line. This notion stirred bitter hilarity, as human passengers were at the time begging for rail service of any kind, and people wondered if the missiles would have porter service and observation cars.
Ronald Reagan, a weapons buff, renamed the MX "Peacekeeper" and asked for 100 more. With the help of New Democrats like Al Gore, he got 50. He also left us his space extravaganza, which others dubbed "Star Wars." The idea, which never really died, has been reverently resurrected by George W. Bush, whose father gave us something called "GPALS" and something else called "Brilliant Pebbles," which have long since washed out to sea.
Now Bill Clinton has given us something calculated to protect Al Gore from incoming "soft on defense" Republican cluster bombs.
Clinton may just stall through November or say no on feasibility and hope he gets credit for saving us from the Republican fantasies of a global umbrella.
We should take comfort from the words William Greider wrote for The Post at the time of the deepest freeze of the Cold War and the hysteria over "the window of vulnerability." In August of 1981, he said, "Who knows, reason can prevail even in a democracy."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company