The debris fallout may be less wor risome than the diplomatic fall out. U.S. space and defense planners say they're putting safety first in trying to shoot apart a falling spy satellite and its tank full of toxic fuel before either come to ground next month and hit a town.But countries around the world instead see another notch on the belt of America's aggressive space-weapons research. A multibillion-dollar anti-missile program that has yet to prove itself in a full, real-world test - and that many physicists say can never be an impermeable shield against cheap decoys - is either openly supported or not clearly rejected by the leading presidential candidates.
John McCain strongly favors the missile defense system. Hillary Clinton doesn't directly address the issue on her Web site. It was her husband's administration that made the decision to move forward more aggressively with the underlying research.
Barack Obama opposes weapons in outer space, but, according to the Polish press, his chief foreign policy adviser, Anthony Lake, told Polish Americans in Cleveland last month that the shield project should not be abandoned in light of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Yet to many overseas, nothing says American hegemony as clearly as this single-minded pursuit of technological dominance over outer space.
The United States has sunk nearly $100 billion since 1980 into missile defenses and proposes to spend $49 billion more over the next five years. Yet so many missile intercept tests have failed that the Missile Defense Agency now classifies some technical failures as "no-tests" so they don't count.
It has also stopped revealing all of the details of how the tests are being gamed with computer simulations and data sets - or when and what sort of decoys are being used to test whether the system can ignore them and find the real target.
That makes it almost impossible to evaluate the credibility of a system that was deployed before it could be tested and proved.
Yes, the upcoming attempt to shoot down the failing spy satellite will be real-world.
It also will be carried out by one of the most credible parts of the U.S. anti-missile system, its tactical ship-based missiles originally developed to take out incoming warheads. With a little adjustment to the software, these missiles become a part of the Bush administration's "phased" anti-missile system, which is supposed to cover the full arc of an incoming ballistic missile's trajectory - from liftoff, out of the atmosphere into space, and then back toward its target.
Shipboard missiles cover only a small part of that arc; the most important component remains the largely untested ground-based interceptors that Washington now wants to farm out to allies such as Poland, with radar in the Czech Republic.
Still, the Aegis missiles have been a big part of the anti-missile systems that America has delivered to Taiwan and Japan - clearly aimed at containing China, although deterring North Korea is the spoken goal.
You might notice a pattern here: Poland and the Czech Republic to Russia's westward flank; Japan and Taiwan to China's eastward side.
America is using its anti-missile system as a new method of containment - even though it's unlikely to contain anybody, and instead is fueling a destabilizing missile race in both Russia and China. Russian leader Vladimir Putin even pointedly warned last week that Russia might have to aim its nukes at Ukraine if that country accepted U.S. missile defense installations.
China's own destabilizing shoot-down last year of one of its aging weather satellites was its way of challenging America's hegemony in outer space.
Now, after years spent denying that U.S. anti-missile defenses were intended to be used to shoot down satellites, U.S. officials are preparing to do just that. And they're doing so mere days after Russia and China formally proposed an anti-space-weapons treaty in Geneva.
It's surely comforting for many Americans to know that our government wants to keep the 2,800 pounds of satellite parts and toxins that it figures will survive re-entry from landing on someone's head or house. It's less encouraging to discover that much of the rest of the world figures we have very ulterior motives for doing so.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan: email@example.com.
© 2008 The Cleveland Plain Dealer