Whether or not he emerges this autumn only a heartbeat away from the American presidency, Dick Cheney will always be remembered for one withering phrase.
The man who has just been picked as George W Bush's running mate was the grave-digger of Ronald Reagan's star wars project. He announced in March 1989 that he did not hold with the view that it would provide a complete shield capable of blocking all incoming missiles. The Reagan administration, he said with masterly understatement, "oversold the concept".
Cheney was the newly appointed defence secretary and his remarks were a powerful signal that the incoming administration led by George Bush senior, George W's father, was not going to continue with Reagan's pet project. Hundreds of critics in the American scientific community, as well as ministers in European Nato governments, already shared the Cheney assessment, but to have it come so directly from the top man in the Pentagon was damning.
As the cold war fades in people's memories and is replaced by a new set of myths, it is as well to be reminded of the Cheney decision, not just for its content but also its timing. A piece of historical nonsense has become increasingly popular as an explanation of Mikhail Gorbachev's ground-breaking reforms in Russia.
According to this complacent triumphalism, it was Ronald Reagan's decision in 1983 to up the ante in the superpower arms race by taking war-making technology into space which undermined the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev realised his country could not match America's military spending without massive economic reform. Faced with the cowboy-actor and the space gun, he and his colleagues cried uncle.
In a speech on star wars (known as the Strategic Defence Initiative) to an admiring audience in the United States, Margaret Thatcher later clothed this fantasy with her typically forceful simplicity: "I firmly believe it was the determination to embark upon the SDI programme and to continue with it that eventually convinced the Soviet Union that they could never, never, never achieve their aim by military might because they would never succeed. I believe this led to an assessment of the poverty of their own system and to require them to admit it produced neither power nor dignity and therefore led to the enormous changes in east-west relations we are seeing."
A pity about the dates. Cheney's denunciation of star wars came several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and when Moscow was still only tinkering with economic reform. Nor were Cheney's remarks the first blow to star wars. The notion of using a colossally expensive forest of space-based mirrors and lasers to shoot down Soviet missiles had already taken a knock in the dying months of Reagan's second term in the White House.
The congressional office of technology assessment concluded in June 1988 that at its best the star wars interceptors would not hit more than 16% of incoming Soviet warheads. A sceptical Congress had long been chipping away at SDI funding and in October 1988 Cheney's predecessor as defence secretary cut star wars back by roughly half.
Far from being panicked, Gorbachev enjoyed the bureaucratic civil war in Washington in which the star wars maximalists lost out. The Soviet leader contributed to their defeat by repeatedly saying Moscow would not bother to join an arms race in space, and it was the American economy which would lose out. "I think you're wasting your money. I don't think it will work. But if that's what you want to do, go ahead," he told Reagan at the Washington summit in December 1987.
But that's the end of the good news. Star wars was not completely scrapped. It was Cheney who, recognising its impotence against a heavily armed nuclear power, launched the argument that a smaller version could be of value against lesser states. The Bush administration was to call them rogue states, though in recent months Clinton's people have diplomatically renamed them "nations of concern".
After delivering his barbed rejection of space-based missile defences against the Soviet Union, Cheney went on in his 1989 speech to say "they will become more important in the future because the possibility exists that you will have other nations with ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, or chemical warfare capabilities that could be used against the United States". Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf war, in which Cheney was to play a major role, were still more than a year away. Here was Cheney already anticipating a nuclear shield against third world states.
The charitable explanation might be that Cheney could not destroy star wars in one go, given the attraction to the hi-tech community of any new scientific option plus the huge subsidies which the arms industry would enjoy. So he could only reduce it and invent a new rationale.
Sadly, there is a grimmer version. Cheney's whole career shows he was always an advocate of American global interventionism, with a propensity to exaggerate both the threats America faces and its need for military rather than political means to deal with them. As a congressman in the 1980s, he backed US funding and military help for the contra rebels in Nicaragua, Jonas Savimbi in Angola, and the mojahedin in Afghanistan. In the Pentagon under George Bush senior, he master-minded the US invasion of Panama. Months before Clinton turned it into the linchpin of its European strategy, Cheney was calling for Nato's expansion into eastern Europe. So George W's choice of Cheney for vice-president is not a reassuring sign that he wants an experienced infighter who understands how the White House has to handle powerful congressional committees. It is proof that Bush's instincts on foreign policy are ultra-hawkish.
As the father of the scaled-down version of star wars which is currently known as the National Missile Defence, Cheney is not going to find it emotionally easy to renounce it. The best hope is that as a man who must by now understand the growing desire of European governments not to be taken for granted by their American super-ally he will control his unilateralist reflexes.
The current defence secretary, William Cohen, is at least moving in that direction. He said this week that Washington must take account of European views on NMD because the system could not work without European states' radars. Britain and Denmark are the key countries, and the Cohen statement in effect gives them a veto over this damaging project. They should use it, since NMD is no different from Stars Wars. It too has been dangerously "oversold".
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000