Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Sunday that President Clinton will consider four criteria -- "the threat, the technology, the cost and what it does to the overall American security" -- in deciding whether to move forward with development of a national missile defense system. If that were true, the president would have scrapped the plan long before now.
Consider each of those criteria:
THE THREAT: Much of the recent impetus for a missile defense system has come from security reports that North Korea's military program is on track to develop a missile that could threaten the United States by 2005. Recent reconciliation talks between North and South Korea raise the possibility that Pyongyang's Communist government may have less hostile relations with the West by 2005 -- assuming it even exists. In any case, the rationale for an elaborate missile defense system is based on the assumption that the leaders of North Korea or any other rogue nation would be insane enough to launch a missile at an American target, knowing that the attack would provoke a devastating U.S. nuclear retaliation. And advocates of a missile defense system acknowledge that it would do nothing to protect us from the more likely threat of nuclear, chemical or biological attack from within our borders or close offshore.
THE TECHNOLOGY: Saturday's failure of an important test was just the latest embarrassment for those hoping to profit politically or financially from a missile defense system, but even a "successful" test would have had little meaning. Presumably, an actual future adversary will not give us ample advance warning as to when, how and from where an attack is coming, nor will it limit the number and complexity of decoys with which a missile defense system will have to contend. Even with all those unrealistic advantages, the Pentagon's tests have given no reason for optimism that a reliable system will be technologically feasible in the foreseeable future.
THE COST: The limited system envisioned by the Clinton administration is projected to cost about $60-billion. History strongly suggests that the actual cost would be many times greater. GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush and other leading Republicans already have committed themselves to a much more elaborate -- and far more expensive -- system. No rational analysis of our security needs could justify making such a huge investment in such a dubious technology to defend against such a remote threat.
OVERALL AMERICAN SECURITY: Even many of our closest allies warn that development of a missile defense system could jeopardize the existing security apparatus that has served our nation well for decades. NATO partners and other allies worry that a U.S. missile shield, whether or not it worked, would "decouple" U.S. security interests from their own. More ominously, Russia has been quite clear in warning that our unilateral abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty could spark a new nuclear arms race. China's government has criticized the American plans in even harsher terms.
Before destabilizing the current security equilibrium, U.S. officials should be certain that they would be replacing it with a system that provides even greater security from enemy attack. Perhaps circumstances will change over the next few years so that an analysis of the criteria listed by Albright would warrant development of a missile shield, but those conditions do not exist today.
Instead, the pressure to commit to an expensive, unproven, potentially destabilizing missile defense system is coming almost entirely from a fifth variable not mentioned by Albright: partisan politics. For fear of being labeled weak on defense in an election year, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have matched Republican demagoguery with their own posturing. Nuclear security is far too grave an issue to be subjected to such cheap political maneuvering.
© St. Petersburg Times.