You've got to wonder just why the Bush administration has its knickers in such a twist over national missile defense -- to the point that it is now threatening unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Some of the very best minds in this nation agree that the threat missile defense is designed to counter remains only a future possibility. It is true that two national commissions have found otherwise, but both were headed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and to reach their alarmist conclusions they recast critical assumptions in ways designed to maximize the threat.
The most plausible explanation critics give for Rumsfeld's missile-defense hawkishness is that it isn't really about missiles and rogue states, but about getting the ABM treaty out of the way so Rumsfeld can press ahead with plans to put anti-satellite and anti-missile weapons in space. If this is true, Rumsfeld and Bush are not serious about a limited missile defense, but are bringing back President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars concept in its full glory.
That ought to worry everyone, for the militarization of space is a step with potentially enormous consequences. It ought not be undertaken by stealth.
Grant the Bush administration its arguments that the ABM treaty and the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) are immoral relics of the Cold War. But accepting those propositions inexorably drives an intellectually honest discussion to a far more basic truth: The real immoral anachronism -- and the real danger to the United States -- is the continued existence of thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles on hair-trigger alert in both Russia and the United States. Only they have made the ABM and MAD necessary. Get rid of those obsolete weapons and you will have eliminated more than 90 percent of the nuclear material threatening the world today.
Moreover, you can start that elimination in ways that are cheap -- a necessity given the size of the Bush tax cut -- and do not violate unilaterally the ABM treaty. Bush could start tomorrow by taking all American missiles off their quick-launch alert. He could follow by announcing that the United States will henceforth embrace a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons. Then would come the hard work of joining with Russia to reduce remaining arsenals to their absolute minimum.
That process essentially says to the world that the United States no longer sees great value in nuclear weapons. Such leadership by example would have a profound effect on the world's would-be nuclear powers. China, India and Pakistan would come under great pressure to reverse their nuclear buildups. In that context, too, missile defense might become a stabilizing rather than destabilizing concept.
The reverse -- getting rid of the ABM treaty without getting rid of the missiles -- heightens the very danger the Bush administration says makes missile defense necessary. That appears to be by design. The Bush administration is full of people who distrust arms control, reject multilateralism, have a blind faith in American technology and want to propel the United States to the ultimate top-dog status: in unilateral military control of everything from outposts in space linking land, sea and air forces on Earth. If that doesn't scare people, it should.
© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune