Dubya's atomic fib

Instead of stopping an arms race, George W. Bush's Star Wars plan could help fuel one.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Published June 9, 2000 6:51PM (EDT)

Sometimes, lies just don't come in clean, fact-checkable sound bites. Instead, they come from a willfully misleading statement or a deceptively faulty premise that, stripped clean of its fancy dressing, resembles nothing more than a simple fib. Which brings us to the now hotly debated topic of whether or not the United States should deploy a so-called national missile defense.

On May 23, George W. Bush announced that he, in line with most other Republicans, supports the deployment of a robust national missile defense. As everyone agrees, what the governor proposes is quite different from the type of missile defense program the Clinton administration is considering. Clinton proposes a limited system designed to shoot down, at most, a handful of missiles launched from so-called "rogue states" like North Korea, Iran or Iraq. The projected price tag for this is $60 billion. Bush, on the other hand, calls for a far more ambitious and (it is only fair to say) almost incalculably more expensive blanket missile shield that would protect all 50 states from an all-out nuclear attack presumably from a major nuclear power.

Bush first made the announcement a few weeks ago, and has recently elaborated on it, with three clear intentions: first, to soothe any doubts about his foreign policy expertise; second, to inspire traditionally Republican voters who positively swoon at the thought of erecting a missile defense; and, third, to reassure middle-of-the-road voters that his plan is not a move toward confrontation but rather a step in the direction of further disarmament and reduced nuclear confrontation.

A tall order. To do this Bush made three additional proposals, which seemed to cast the idea of missile defense in a wholly new light. Bush said he would 1) extend his missile shield to include America's European allies; 2) unilaterally reduce the number of U.S. nuclear warheads and invite the Russians to do the same; and 3) "remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status," and invite the Russians to do the same.

This all sounds very reassuring and, like all modern political pitches, has great appeal to a variety of different constituencies with very divergent views.

But wait a minute. What you wouldn't know from Bush's statement is that our European allies haven't asked to be included within the U.S. missile defense system. Actually, they are mounting a vociferous campaign to persuade us not to deploy even the limited missile defense plan the Clinton administration proposes. In fact, few issues unite the Europeans more than their opposition to our missile defense plans.

Then there's the matter of coupling missile defense with further reductions in American and Russian nuclear arsenals. What the Russians (and the Chinese, for that matter) fear about an American missile defense program is that it will make us invulnerable to their missiles. Thus, as they've repeatedly told us, their logical reaction will be for them (especially the Chinese) to increase their stockpile of weapons in order to overwhelm our defenses. (In fact, one of the main points made by missile defense opponents is that it will prompt the Chinese to vastly expand their own nuclear arsenal, which currently contains roughly two dozen missiles.) No one thinks they will reduce them further.

Similarly, the likelihood of removing missiles from their "high-alert, hair-trigger status" seems low. Facing an American missile defense would almost unquestionably make the Chinese and Russians want to keep their nuclear arsenals on just such a "high-alert, hair-trigger" status. If they won't, it's tough to imagine that the Pentagon will.

There surely is a consistent, honest argument for a national missile defense. Proponents argue that it will free the United States from depending on arms control agreements, which of course come only after relentlessly frustrating negotiations. After all, if missile defense really works, it won't matter what these other countries do since their missiles can't hit us.

So what's going on here? Doesn't Bush know the Europeans are against the whole idea of a missile defense? Doesn't he know that a robust missile defense will likely make it difficult to make further reductions to nuclear stockpiles?

It's possible Bush doesn't grasp any of this. But his advisors do. And they know full well that the Bush proposal -- well-tailored for domestic political consumption -- is premised on a series of dubious or simply improbable scenarios and is, therefore, a deception.

Joshua Micah Marshall

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

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