The timing of the Bush administration's recent decision to give Russia six months' notice of its intent to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty seemed peculiar in the extreme.
Why risk alienating Russia, China, and major U.S. allies in Europe in pursuit of a technologically unproven, immensely expensive ballistic missile defense system? And why abandon the ABM Treaty now, when experts like the Pentagon's former top testing official, Philip Coyle, have indicated that an effective missile defense testing program can go on for years before it runs up against the limits imposed by the agreement?
These questions may have been given careful consideration by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who opposed the rush to abandon the treaty. But they were almost certainly viewed as irrelevant by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and other long-standing members of the ballistic missile defense lobby who hold major policy-making positions in the Bush administration.
For these military hard-liners, destroying the ABM Treaty is a worthwhile goal in its own right, because it sets the stage for making military/technical dominance the centerpiece of U.S. security policy. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, another committed advocate of missile defense, has dubbed this approach "peace through strength, not peace through paper."
Individuals within the administration have also indicated that President Bush made a political calculation that it would be better to make the decision to junk the ABM Treaty now, when he's riding high in public opinion polls, than to wait until closer to the 2004 elections, when it might get more traction as an issue that could be used against him by political adversaries.
This historic shift in U.S. arms control policy represents a major victory for the "star wars" lobby, a powerful network of conservative ideologues, cowboy militarists and cash-hungry contractors spearheaded by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and Center for Security Policy (CSP).
With Bush in the White House, the lobby no longer needs to attempt to influence the federal government from the outside - it has staged a friendly takeover of the executive branch. CSP, which last year received more than $200,000 from major weapons contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, brags in its annual report that no fewer than 17 of its former advisory board members have been appointed to positions in the Bush administration, including Feith and Secretary of the Air Force James Roche. Rumsfeld is a longtime associate and former donor to the center. He recently served as the keynote speaker at CSP's "Keeper of the Flame" awards dinner, the center's largest annual fund-raising event.
The abandonment of the ABM Treaty is obviously great news for anti-arms control advocates. It's also a huge shot in the arm for major contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, which have already amassed more than $17 billion in long-term contracts for missile defense research.
But what's in it for the average American?
While Americans wait for years to see if a workable system can be developed - at a cost of tens of billions of tax dollars - nuclear powers like Russia, China, India and Pakistan are going to be beefing up their own arsenals in reaction to the U.S. ballistic missile defense program. Does that sound like a safer world? Now that the Bush administration has cast aside the ABM Treaty, the best hope of stopping his "star wars" scheme is to shine the spotlight of public attention on its glaring flaws.
Failing the rigged tests
The most "advanced" element of the system, a ground-based interceptor that is supposed to be able to intercept nuclear warheads in the midcourse phase of their flight, has succeeded in three out of five tests, all of which were rigged. As the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a recent report, each test to date has involved using a transponder to emit signals that guide the interceptor to within 400 yards of the mock warhead it is meant to hit.
The booster rocket that would launch the interceptors is years behind schedule. In a test this month, a prototype of the booster rocket veered off course and had to be blown up, littering the beaches in coastal areas near California's Vandenberg Air Force Base with debris.
Meanwhile, the Navy has announced that the easiest version of a sea-based missile interceptor system, the Navy Area Wide system, is being canceled due to poor performance and major cost overruns.
None of these problems was caused by the ABM Treaty. It's quite likely that the more demanding tests that can be conducted once the treaty is abandoned will be even less successful.
What about terrorism?
Even if a modest missile defense capability could be developed, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, has reminded us that the U.S. government's top intelligence analysts believe that a ballistic missile is the least likely way a terrorist group or rogue state would choose to attack the United States.
Ballistic missiles are extremely hard to develop, and launching one or a handful at the United States would open up the attacking state or organization to a devastating counterattack.
Even if the United States had developed a foolproof missile defense system - a goal that even the most enthusiastic boosters of the program admit is impossible - prior to Sept. 11, it would have been utterly useless against the relatively low-tech threat of hijacked airliners turned into suicide missiles. Continuing to lavish billions on missile defense now represents both a distortion of logic and a monumental misappropriation of military resources.
Recipe for more war
Beyond lining the pockets of defense contractors, the only obvious purpose of the Bush administration's missile defense program is as an adjunct to a campaign to establish long-term U.S. military dominance, on earth, at sea, in the air, and in outer space.
That may make for a great unilateralist fantasy, but in the real world it's a recipe for wars without end, many of which will be far more devastating than the recent conflict in Afghanistan. The "star wars" lobby has won round one, but the battle for the future of U.S. security policy is far from over.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York City.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun