National Missile Defense (NMD) is a bad idea whose time will come soon unless the American public takes much more interest. NMD will come despite President Clinton's Sept. 1 to defer action on NMD. Both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates unequivocally support this unwise course of action.
Americans rightly fear the catastrophic consequences that would result from a nuclear attack. We need a strategy to minimize such a possibility, but it is not NMD.
A great deal has been written on NMD. Some say the proposed system will not work, others that it will. How is the public to judge?
A compelling reason not to go forward with NMD - even more so than the high probability that it would provide little protection - is that the threat on which it is based is not a threat to be feared. Because of our capability for massive retaliation, we successfully co-existed with the Soviet Union even though they had over 20,000 nuclear warheads. The idea that a nation with only a few nuclear-armed missiles would fire them at targets in the United States is absurd.
But if NMD is not needed, why does it have the support it does in Washington? The answer: skillful lobbying for unneeded weapons by military contractors who contribute large sums to political campaigns - the same reason that the United States is building a fleet of new attack submarines, at a cost of $3 billion each, to counter a next generation of Soviet submarines which will never exist.
In fact, most of the more than $50 billion to be spent next year for new weapons is unnecessary. The United States is building F-22 fighter planes to replace F-15s and F-16s even though the latter are acknowledged as the best in the world and cost less than one-fourth the price of the F-22. Moreover, the F-22 may be outdated soon by the Joint Strike Fighter, an even more advanced plane on which the Pentagon is spending billions.
NMD, estimated to cost $60 billion, would be a boon for military contractors since initial estimates for weapon systems usually are far less than final costs. But, in addition to spending all that money at the expense of other needs, there is another downside - that we neglect a nuclear threat which does exist.
A "rogue" state with nuclear bombs could destroy targets in the United States by smuggling in a bomb and leaving it in a car or - to produce even greater destruction - in a rented office high above the ground. The strategic defense initiative we really need is one that would prevent such crimes.
Controlling what comes into the United States is one approach. Since such measures have not been effective in keeping out illegal drugs, however, this approach hardly inspires confidence. That is why the best way to minimize the possibility of a nuclear attack is to give as little cause as possible. The only reason for destroying an American city would be to right perceived wrongs.
To many people in foreign countries, particularly "rogue" states, the United States is viewed as a selfish bully. This image could be softened if there were fewer unilateral actions and U.S. foreign policy were more closely tied to that of other democratic nations.
Perhaps most important, we can improve the image of the United States by directing some of the money spent on unneeded weapons at increased foreign aid. The United States spends less on foreign assistance as a percentage of gross domestic product than any other industrial nation - less than one-third that of Germany, one-fifth that of France and one-ninth that of Denmark.
In the long run, that will do far more for the security of Americans than a NMD system that would increase military spending throughout the world. Increasing foreign aid would have another advantage: By sharing a little more of our abundance, we would be doing right.
James L. Hecht is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver.
Copyright 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc