-- Within minutes of yesterday's terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, U.S. defence officials were facing their first volley of tough questions. Why were they pouring massive resources into a high-technology shield against ballistic missiles, rather than the less glamorous task of protecting America from old-fashioned terrorism?
The questions came from journalists in Moscow, where two high-ranking Pentagon strategists had just spent another fruitless day in their campaign to persuade the Kremlin to abandon its opposition to the anti-missile scheme.
By coincidence, the devastating assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was erupting at precisely the moment when the two Pentagon officials were walking into a press briefing at the end of their latest negotiations with Russian military officials on the missile issue.
The symbolism was stark. While the Pentagon was preoccupied in Moscow with the task of seeking foreign support for a hugely expensive missile shield of uncertain effectiveness, a band of terrorists had found a much easier way to penetrate the heart of America. Without any need for intercontinental missiles or nuclear technology, the terrorists had simply hijacked a few passenger airliners and steered them into big buildings.
The missile shield, which is expected to cost at least $60-billion (U.S.) even by preliminary estimates, has swiftly become the top international priority for George W. Bush, who has been forced to drop other foreign issues to concentrate on defusing the Russian and Chinese opposition to the missile scheme -- not to mention the skepticism of his European and Canadian allies.
Critics have always noted that the missile shield would be useless against the cheapest and easiest methods of terrorism. It provides no protection against a suitcase bomb, a small nuclear device smuggled into American waters in a rowboat, a chemical or biological weapon, or an old-fashioned plane hijacking or suicide bombing.
Yesterday's catastrophic attacks will undoubtedly strengthen the hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been arguing for years that Washington should join him in a global fight against Islamic terrorism, rather than promoting a dubious scheme to shoot down ballistic missiles.
A missile shield is aimed at states with enough resources to mount a ballistic missile program. Only a handful of "rogue" states (Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea) are seen as having the resources and the fanaticism to contemplate a missile attack on the United States. Washington was willing to use nuclear deterrence (the doctrine of mutually assured destruction) to discourage Soviet missile attacks during the Cold War. It was never entirely clear why an Iraqi or Libyan leader would be more suicidal than a Soviet leader, since a massive American nuclear counterstrike would certainly cause the destruction of any country foolish enough to fire a missile at the United States.
At yesterday's briefing in Moscow, after the first news of the New York attacks, the Pentagon officials were peppered with questions about their defence strategy. The new skeptical mood was clear. Journalists from the two biggest establishment newspapers -- The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal -- were the most aggressive in questioning the Bush administration's strategy of devoting new resources to a missile shield rather than anti-terrorism measures.
"If a rogue nation can circumvent this shield to deliver a blow to the United States, do you not see the relevance of what happened today to the conceptual flaws of the shield?" one correspondent asked.
The Pentagon officials were obliged to mount another defence of their plans for a missile shield. "I don't think it's fair to say that a system designed for a specific purpose is flawed because it doesn't accomplish something it's not designed to do," said Douglas Feith, the U.S. undersecretary of defence. "If airplanes hit the World Trade Center, that's not what the missile defence system is designed to protect against."
The second official, assistant secretary of defence J. D. Crouch, tried another tack. "You're saying, essentially, that if you're trying to prevent a burglary, and the back-door lock is jammed, you might as well leave your front door open as well. We have got a whole range of threats to deal with, and we have different programs to deal with those threats. We spend billions of dollars on improving our capabilities to deal with the terrorist threat. A missile launched at New York City, particularly one carrying a weapon of mass destruction, would cause far more damage than what is being reported in New York today."
A few minutes later, the briefing was suddenly cut short, and the Pentagon officials were whisked out of the room. But the questions lingered in the air behind them.
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