Missile defense goes global

Bush seeks to woo Europe while violating our hallmark arms control agreement with Russia. Analysts react to the president's speech.

Published May 2, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

President Bush Tuesday began in earnest the campaign for a new multi-billion dollar international ballistic missile plan, despite continued opposition from foreign leaders who worry about kick-starting another arms race and scientists who claim a missile shield cannot work.

Bush's short speech on Tuesday afternoon gave little new insight into what a plan might look like, with scant specifics regarding the range and capability of the weapons involved, and no estimate of cost or who would end up paying for the system. (Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said after the speech that he feared the cost could climb as high as $200 billion. Other defense analysts have guessed that Bush's plan would cost $10 billion a year during the research and development phase, with greater cost as it was deployed.)

But the president's focus on modifying or scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, our 1972 agreement with what was then the Soviet Union, sent a signal to those in the Republican Party who have long argued for a national missile defense -- and against continued treaty talks with Russia. In Tuesday's speech, Bush tried to straddle the line between members of his own party at home who want the treaty done away with, and American allies abroad who want the treaty to remain intact. Choosing his words carefully, the president spoke of "a new framework" for global defense that "move(s) beyond the constraints of the ABM treaty."

The pursuit of a missile defense will have profound consequences on international relations and translate into billions of dollars in defense contracts. Bush insists that missile defense is part of "a search for security, not a search for advantage." He says he plans to reduce our arsenal of nuclear warheads from about 7,000 to a range of 1,500-2,000. But critics say that despite Bush's assurances, scrapping the ABM treaty -- the hallmark agreement on nuclear disarmament -- will lead to a vast new nuclear arms race.

Over the past four months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he is unhappy with the Bush plans to violate the ABM treaty. Tuesday's speech suggested that this rift between the two leaders will continue, with Russian government spokespersons lodging their complaints to the media, and a handful of Bush administration envoys sent to the capitals of NATO allied countries on Tuesday.

As Bush pointed out, "Today, Russia is not our enemy." In fact, the only state named by the president as an enemy was Iraq. Instead, Bush justified the missile defense plan as a way to protect allies from states that "hate our friends, they hate our values, they hate our democracy," and "for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life."

Now, Bush must sell the plan to our allies. Though Tuesday's speech marks the beginning of the public campaign, the hard sell of a missile defense system to Europe began months ago. From the beginning of the new administration, Bush's advisors have tried to convince European Union leaders to buy in to a system the EU could never afford on its own but one from which it could benefit. In reality, any new system would need an OK from Europe -- particularly from the governments of Britain and Denmark, where we would need to upgrade radar stations.

But many European leaders appear skeptical. Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said, "We urge President Bush to abstain from the national missile defense, just as we urge China, India and Pakistan to discontinue their nuclear arsenals." British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said, "The important issue is the clear commitment we have seen today to work together with allies and with Russia. We will work closely with the Bush administration as we always do -- as close allies, with common strategic interests." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Can Bush simultaneously reduce our stockpile of nuclear weapons and pursue a ballistic missile defense? Will Europe be wooed? Salon asked three analysts.

Christopher Makins, president of the Atlantic Council of the United States, coauthored the September 2000 report "European Views of National Missile Defense" with Stephen J. Hadley and others in the defense field.

I do not think that there is much support in Europe for simply a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and I do believe that many Europeans believe that it is important that there be some international agreements or regimes that limit the competition in strategic arms, both offensive and defensive.

I think it would be fair to say that many European governments are willing to accept the idea that the specific restrictions in the ABM treaty, both the 1972 text itself and some of the separate understandings that have been negotiated since then, need to be changed -- maybe in fairly radical ways. But what they would be still very unhappy about is the idea that the U.S. would decide to leave the ABM treaty. They would expect that at the least there would be very serious discussions with the European governments and with the Russians on what might be the international agreement that would take its place.

As to the Russians, I think there has been some reason to believe that they would consider modifying the ABM treaty. Of course, none of this has been put forward to them either by the previous administration or more especially by this one, in a particularly detailed fashion. So it's difficult to be confident in what they would or wouldn't be able or willing to agree to. But I think they've given fairly clear signals that they're not wedded to the specific text of the treaty from 1972.

And of course we know that all throughout this period, they have been more sympathetic to the idea of defending themselves against ballistic missile attack than perhaps some people in the United States have been. One of the major reasons there were willing to go along with the treaty in the first place was because they were afraid that the U.S. might be able to advance more quickly down the path of missile defense and therefore get some sort of a strategic advantage during the Cold War. But even Putin himself in his proposals clearly accepts that defense against ballistic missile attack is something that should be part of the strategic arsenal, both for Russia and for Europe.

One of the great changes that the Bush administration has made is that they registered very well the point that Europeans in particular and others in general were not happy with, the idea that Clinton was in effect putting forward, that the U.S. would defend itself but that that defense would not be available to others. So early on the Bush administration made it plain that when they were talking about defense, the were talking about a defense that could be available and provide protection to allies and friends around the world. And that was seen in Europe, and I think in other places around the world, as a very positive change.

When you talk about a global defense, that conjures up in the mind something akin to the Ronald Reagan Star Wars concept. I think that this administration has made it very plain that they are not talking about a Strategic Defense Initiative type concept. They're not talking about an impermeable shield against hundreds or thousands of ballistic missiles. They are talking about dealing with very limited missile attack or missile threats, and with the threat of accidental or unauthorized launch. So it would be misleading to describe their willingness to extend the coverage of this system to allies and friends, to confuse that with Reagan's global shield idea.

We now have some 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons and what they're saying is, Look, we don't even need to think about threatening an attack against Russia of the scale that was involved in the Cold War period. What is the largest threat that we might need to pose for deterrence purposes against Russia or China? It's one that could certainly be posed by a force of maybe 1,500 weapons.

And yet we're sort of in this situation where these arms control agreements encourage everybody to stay with the figures that have previously been agreed. What [the administration is] saying is, wouldn't it be much simpler if we just moved to the level that we're comfortable with, that meets all the possible needs that we could see even on pessimistic assumptions? Then we would have set the example, and the Russians, who anyway probably can't afford a force that's much larger than that these days, would feel more comfortable settling for the largest force that they could afford. And so that's the reasoning, and I think in some ways that it's easier to get to that level by unilateral action. And by not locking ourselves or the Russians into a particular level through a detailed treaty, we have the flexibility to move either up or down in the future, if the situation evolves further, either good or bad.

I'm trying to describe this, though I'm not saying I would agree with all of these arguments. I think that there's no doubt that we do not need the levels that we're currently at. We can, without difficulty, go down to 1,000 to 1,500 long-range warheads. I may be slightly more inclined than the administration, though it's hard to tell exactly what they will think when their position is elaborated in greater detail, to believe that a negotiated agreement is important. And I might be more inclined to look to enshrine that in some more formal agreement than what they're talking about.

A lot depends, frankly, on the attitude that the Russians take to all this. Because if the Russians are going to be difficult about changing either the offensive levels or the defensive levels, then there is a compelling case to, as Bush put it, to "lead by example." That would have a positive effect in terms of the broader objective which is fundamental to what Bush and company are talking about, which is trying to discourage and if possible reverse the trend of proliferation of both the ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Frances Fitzgerald is the author of "Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War."

He didn't lay out a plan at all. In fact, there was nothing more than he said in the campaign. It may be that they're just not going to change policy very much at all and that this is all talk. Could be. We don't honestly know much more than we knew this morning.

I really thought from that speech that he was selling the Republican right on this. Because he was not very rhetorical otherwise, except in the terms that they like, which is getting rid of the ABM treaty and about these nasty tyrants and so forth. But he wasn't very rhetorical about the system itself. It was an incredibly short speech.

Half of the Republican Party -- the right half -- has absolutely always hated the ABM treaty, because it's the foundation for all other arms control agreements, and they don't like arms control agreements, and they don't like treaties very much.

I think this is part of deep ideology. Particularly to the Republican right, who come from a tradition of the Middle West in the 19th century, the notion of America invulnerable is terribly important. Everybody knows that ground-based interceptors are not going to do it. So the only conceivable thing that could possibly do it is stuff in space. But it's also part of a military pattern that comes again from the 19th century, which is that these people have never been part of the Army, but rather of the Navy and then the Air Force -- it's about exerting power at a distance, and not getting involved in other people's politics.

He didn't tell us that he was going to move away from Mutually Assured Destruction, what he said is that we're going to have a mixture of defenses and deterrents, which is indeed Mutually Assured Destruction. So really, it's about getting rid of this treaty. I don't know whether they're going to do it tomorrow or whether they're going to hold off, he didn't give any timetable. The fact is that there is no system he can possibly deploy during his first term. What the Pentagon is saying now about the ground-based interceptor that's being tested won't be deployed until 2006.

But honestly, all of that is sort of way out there in the blue, to coin a phrase, because you know you can't imagine Iraq or Iran sending a strategic nuclear warhead at Britain or France, who have many more than they do, right? Deterrence already exists.

The theme is there, which is: Get rid of these treaties. Then the question is whether they're actually going to do anything different otherwise.

Bill Hartung is a fellow of the World Policy Institute.

On one level it's very similar to the speech he gave in May of 2000 on the campaign trail, the one where he had all the Republican luminaries standing behind him -- Powell and Rumsfeld and George Shultz, and Kissinger I think. But I think that the context is a lot different now, because he's got all of these missile defense advocates -- like Rumsfeld, like Wolfowitz, people like Stephen Hadley -- at the top levels of his administration.

He seemed to be trying to put a historical gloss on his desire to push missile defense: It's a new era and Russia's not our adversary in the way the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. It was almost as if he was saying, Russia was not that important a consideration for our security, which is a little strange considering that they're still sitting on thousands of nuclear weapons, that they don't really have control of their military in the way that they did during the Cold War. I would think that alone would be a reason to still consider them an important potential threat. But it seems like he's more concerned with the countries that don't actually have the capability to reach us yet, more than the ones who have nuclear weapons. It seems sort of backwards.

The fact that he's talking about sea-based and space-based and land-based interceptors means that he wants to go for a quite ambitious system. I don't know how you even estimate the cost, but if you consider that the Clinton plan was going to be $60 billion for basically just a land-based element, it could run into some substantial dollars. And that's the part he didn't deal with today. How are you going to fit that in? Are you going to cut something else in the Pentagon budget?

It seems like he was trying to set the theme, and it's an interesting theme: Moscow's not our adversary anymore, we don't need to be in a balance of terror, we can modify the equation a little bit with some defenses combined with a reduction in weapons.

A lot of this stuff depends on perception -- I think that's the biggest problem at the moment. The U.S. has taken various actions going back into the Clinton period that have been viewed harshly by Russia, from NATO expansion to the way the intervention in Kosovo was handled without running it through the U.N. Security Council, to missile defense itself. The U.S. is not perceived by these countries as a country that works and plays well with others. So Bush saying, well they'll understand -- they probably won't understand. I don't think they're going to buy this package.

If you made deep reductions in nuclear weapons and you had some defensive systems that the various players agreed did not negate their deterrent, and were negotiated at least with reference to a modified ABM treaty -- maybe you could make all those elements come together. But if it's perceived as the Bush administration saying, we're going to rip up the rules on nuclear weapons as they exist in the Cold War, and these are the new rules, take them or leave them, you're going to have a lot of problems.

China will probably crank up from 18 long-range missiles to some hundreds, or more. Russia will be less inclined to take their weapons off alert and might even modernize them. India and Pakistan will say, well, maybe we need more than just a few of these things. The whole thing could start to unravel. And the problem is whatever defensive ideas [Bush and his advisors] have, they're mostly on paper now. So they're not going to be available to deal with the repercussions, if other countries perceive this as a threatening move and they start building up their arsenals accordingly, it could be ten years before we have anything in the way of a defense to deal with that. So it's taking a lot of risks up front with very uncertain gain.

[Disarmament] doesn't really work unless other countries decide to do it too. When his father decided to do things like that, it was within the structure of arms control agreements ... then they were using unilateral moves to go further. Whereas what George W. Bush was saying seems to be: We don't need the treaties anymore.

Bush said: Nobody who's not planning to blackmail us with nuclear weapons needs to worry about this. But that's really not how defense planners think, that's not enough for them to go by. They'll think, it looks like they're going for this elaborate system; maybe we can't cut back right now, maybe we should modernize. You lose the advantage of unilateral reductions if it's not done in some cooperative spirit, at least, someone on the other side with some incentive to follow suit.

He's got half a good idea, but it doesn't really fit well with the other half of his plan. And that may not be the last word. They did make a point about these consultations [with Europe and Putin].

The European defense industry, given that it's consolidating, that they've taken some heat for not having technology for their conventional forces that are comparable with the U.S., they would welcome any infusion of R&D money that they could get. But then of course, the Bush administration will have to figure out how much money they want to spread around here.

I think the strong advocates are trying to argue that the ABM treaty is hamstringing us, we've got to get out from under it or we'll never know whether we could build a viable defense. But people who look at it with a more skeptical eye feel that there's quite a bit of research and testing they could do and quite a bit they could learn about what's possible without having to step out from the treaty. There's a gray area. Certainly at least for the next year, they could probably have a fairly robust R&D program without having to junk the treaty. But some people seem to think that there's an interest in stepping out of the treaty, just to sort of force the U.S. to do this, full-steam ahead -- almost a political statement of intent.

He's left himself a little bit of wiggle room. Because he hasn't said, I'm going to walk away from it tomorrow. The Russians and Europeans and even some Democrats on the Hill are going to embrace whatever wiggle room Bush offers. So if he says he's going to consult, they're going to try to turn that into something real. And if he hasn't said, I'm trashing the treaty tomorrow, they're going to feel maybe there's still some room for discussion. At some point the ambiguities will be cast aside, but I think there's still further discussions that have to happen in the administration.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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National Security Nuclear Weapons Russia Star Wars U.s. Military