Star Wars lite?

The Democrats cave on building a missile defense system.

Published March 18, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Wednesday's 97-3 Senate vote to commit the United States to building a national missile defense "as soon as technologically possible" marked the first real legislative victory for congressional Republicans in more than a year. After months of getting beat up by Democrats on issues like Social Security, the GOP has managed to pull together what they think might be a winning agenda on national defense. "Anything that forces national defense on the agenda is manna for Republicans," one veteran GOP strategist told Salon Wednesday. "We've been wandering in the desert for so long."

Republicans were quick to point out that Wednesday's vote marked a stark turnabout for Senate Democrats and the White House, both of which have consistently opposed legislation like the missile defense system. For years Democrats have argued that a proposed national missile defense -- from Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), lampooned as "Star Wars," to more modest proposals -- would cost too much and probably wouldn't work. Even more important, Democrats have argued, a national missile defense would destabilize our relations with countries such as Russia and China. And those concerns are echoed by many foreign relations experts. Lawrence Korb, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Salon Wednesday that if the United States actually deploys a national missile defense it could persuade the Russians that the U.S. is not really serious about arms control and convince the Chinese that our aim is not really to engage them, but rather to contain them.

With North Korea's recent ballistic missile advances, there now seems to be bipartisan agreement that some limited missile defense to protect against attacks from rogue nations is a good idea. However, many conservative supporters of a national missile defense seem to see that very limited option as a bridge toward something more like SDI -- a complete defense against all ballistic missile attacks. And missile defense skeptics believe the capacity to build even a limited system -- to protect Japan, say, from North Korea -- is probably a decade away, and would never provide full protection.

So what happened? Why the Democrats' change of heart? Democrats agreed to support the bill Tuesday after the passage of a compromise amendment designed to ensure that the bill's passage will not interfere with ongoing arms reduction negotiations with the Russians. But Republicans on the Hill were arguing that Democrats had simply caved since Republicans seemed to have public opinion on their side. When asked about the compromise, a staffer from the office of one conservative senator said, "What's the compromise? It's always been the U.S. policy to continue arms control reductions. That was never an issue. This was just a fig-leaf for Democrats who realize this issue has majority support."

Democrats, needless to say, took a contrary view. Privately, some called the whole bill a meaningless piece of legislation meant only for political effect. "This is already our policy [to develop a missile defense]. The money's already been allocated," one Democratic staffer commented. "What's the purpose of passing this besides politics? [The Republicans] just don't have an agenda."

There is some truth in that claim. The White House's proposed budget for next year does include more than $10 billion in new funds to develop a national missile system, which some saw as a questionable political gesture by Clinton to the military during his impeachment crisis. But the significance of Wednesday's vote is political and symbolic. One of the greatest frustrations for Republicans in recent years has been the fact that the national defense has played such a small role in national political debates. But in recent weeks Republicans have been able to turn that around. The furor over Chinese nuclear espionage and the on-again, off-again negotiations over Kosovo have allowed Republicans to put national defense back on the public agenda and focus the nation's attention on a topic that unites their constituents and divides Democrats.

And this is just what the Republicans needed. So recently stung by impeachment, Republicans are also looking for a defining national defense issue to use going into the 2000 election cycle. Just as importantly, today's vote has allowed congressional Republicans to deliver on a pet issue near and dear to the hearts of their most loyal supporters -- something they haven't been able to do for a long time.

But whatever significance the vote has in the political skirmishing between the two parties, and however feasible the technology actually may be, no one should ignore the larger issues at play in this debate. Republican support for a national missile defense cuts to the heart of how the United States will manage its foreign affairs in the coming years and decades. Some of the Republican devotion to the national missile defense program is Reagan-era nostalgia. Some is the perennial conservative desire for robust military budgets. But the deeper reason cuts to the heart of the approaches to foreign policy that now divide Republicans and Democrats.

The Clinton administration's foreign policy has been based on the idea that America's national interests are best served through an engaged internationalism -- one that fosters regional peace, builds up international institutions and treaty organizations and creates a stable world system, with definable rules and norms. But for the last decade Republicans have increasingly chafed at the numerous international commitments that such a policy of liberal internationalism has made necessary. And that's where a national missile defense comes in. If the United States can make itself invulnerable to missile attacks from abroad, what do we care what North Korea does? Why worry if the crisis in the former Yugoslavia bleeds into the rest of the Balkans?

Unfortunately, the tendency toward isolationism that's behind the Republican eagerness for a national missile defense system can't ultimately protect the nation. The most serious threat to the United Sates comes not from ballistic missiles, but from terrorist attacks that can be mounted by much less sophisticated means. Even more important, the isolationist approach to foreign policy that many Republicans now support will arm the country to the teeth without taking clear steps to avoid or reduce the risks of conflict in the first place. Whatever the deficiencies of Clinton administration foreign policy, one of its achievements has been its ability to combine potent national defense with pro-active long-range efforts to prevent conflict. That's an approach that shouldn't be abandoned, but a missile defense system could be a step in that direction.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Bill Clinton Ronald Reagan Star Wars