Shields up!

A missile defense system couldn't have stopped the terrorist attacks, but so what? Star Wars is suddenly more popular than ever.

Published September 19, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, liberal pundits stepped up their opposition to national missile defense. A high-tech shield would not have prevented the disasters, they noted: Instead, funding priorities should be placed on so-called "human intelligence," international alliances, and attention to the root causes of terrorism. "Star Wars" thinking is a relic of the Cold War era; it doesn't "fit the times," wrote Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. The enemy, she concluded, is "too shadowy to be stopped by a shield."

But the political ground has shifted under the commentators' feet. On Monday, Senate Democrats -- who had been holding up Bush's missile defense appropriation until the White House could prove that it didn't contradict the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Russia -- dropped their opposition. A House bipartisan coalition went even further, proposing a bill that would add $2 billion more to the already-generous $8.2 billion total President Bush was requesting before the terrorist attack.

Some legislators are claiming that they haven't caved in completely. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., say that they are merely "postponing" debate in order to quickly pass the White House's $343 billion defense bill at a time of greet need. Daschle's spokeswoman, Anita Dunn, told the Associated Press, "There will be an appropriate time to bring this up for debate; this week is not the appropriate time."

But for now, Congress has given missile defense a large check and a green light that may be difficult to rescind later. Even though most experts concede that no missile defense system, no matter how sophisticated, could have prevented knife-wielding hijackers from taking over commercial airliners, that hasn't stopped them from expressing increasing levels of support for a missile shield.

One argument being made is that the WTC attack is proof positive of terrorism's escalation. The threat of long-range missiles bearing nuclear warheads seems suddenly much more realistic. A less obvious corollary is the likely effect of U.S. retaliation against such states as Afghanistan. A further polarization between the West and Islam could destabilize nuclear-empowered Pakistan and encourage other potential "rogue" states to redouble their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"We're now in the midst of a potentially long, uncertain conflict that may put these countries -- Algeria, Iran, Sudan and others -- on the opposite side," says Dan Goure, a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a defense-focused think tank. "We haven't been able to deter, therefore we must seek to defend. It's a general strategic principle that we have to follow."

Pakistan doesn't have long-range missiles. In fact, says Dan Smith, a retired colonel at the Center for Defense Information, "Pakistan is so far away from having the means to develop an ICBM that they do not pose a threat for which [nuclear missile defense] would be useful." But, missile defense supporters contend, that doesn't mean that Pakistan won't find a way to get missiles in the future. And if it does, it will be in the context of increasing tensions between Muslims outraged at U.S. attempts to punish states that ostensibly support terrorism, such as Afghanistan. "It's likely that Pakistan will be a less stable place in coming years," says Michael Byers, an international law and politics expert at Duke University.

There's a serious possibility that "armed action against Afghanistan might also promote instability elsewhere, perhaps in Egypt, Algeria, even Saudi Arabia," Byers says. Extreme military action against one Muslim-controlled country could motivate others to ramp up calls for American attacks. Already, argues Jeffrey Tiel, a military philosopher at Ashland University in Ohio, Americans have been forced to acknowledge that terrorists are capable of acts previously unimagined. If they can turn passenger jets into missiles at the cost of their own lives, what's to stop them from firing nuclear warheads from their own countries?

"Because suddenly our enemy may choose to use these weapons [both nuclear and biological]," says Byers, "the present war situation aggravates the timetable on the deployment of a defense of this kind." In other words, now is the time to start investing in a missile shield. There's no time to lose.

It's impossible to know which of these countries would be most willing to support terrorism, says Jack Spencer, defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "But one thing we've learned over the past 10 years is that the terrorism -- from hijackings to the first World Trade Center bombing to the attack on the USS Cole -- get increasingly ugly. It's simply a matter of escalation. The choice is to do nothing and wait for biological and nuclear weapons, or we can do something now."

The proposed national missile defense system -- which optimistic experts say could be 80 percent functional in five years -- wouldn't be the only solution, if these hawkish experts get their way. There's no reason to stop investing in other forms of security. But a missile shield should be a major part of the U.S. defense strategy because ballistic missiles -- short, medium and long-range -- are proliferating all over the world, says Richard H. Kohn, a military policy expert at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Politically, a missile shield looks better now than ever before, "but it's always been a good idea," he says. Theater range ballistic missiles, which can be fired from about 600 miles away and which have become easier to build and obtain, pose a near-term threat. If Iran obtained and chose to use them on say, American troops in Afghanistan, "concentrations of American forces could be decimated," he says.

Given the danger, says Kohn, the Bush administration should be pursuing the most promising forms of technology that remove the threat of short- and medium-range missiles.

The current congressional climate appears to be one in which the Bush administration can get anything it wants, simply by invoking the magic word "terrorism." But should missile defense research get a completely blank check? Some supporters of missile defense demur. Kohn, along with former military men like retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, author of "Fighting for the Future," a collection of strategic and military essays, argues that the plan should be funded only in proportion to its success.

"Those of us who have been thinking about missile defense for years support the idea -- but only if it's going to work, and if it's going to increase American defense," Kohn says. "There are dangers. First, there's the possibility that you're going to waste a tremendous amount of money on a system that doesn't work. And the second danger is that you're going to provoke other countries to increase their stock of nuclear weapons. It's potentially very destabilizing."

Opponents of missile defense deployment cite Kohn's points as reasons to put Star Wars research on the back burner, or even kill it off altogether. But Kohn and other moderate supporters are using the WTC tragedy as evidence that any potential difficulties shouldn't dissuade defense system advocates. Instead, they advocate "controlled support," meaning heavy funding and a return to the defense shield strategy popular in the 1960s that consisted of research but not necessarily deployment.

"As someone who worked in government for a long time, I know that you need to dangle the carrot rather than just handing out the money," says Peters. "I think we should move ahead cautiously with the research and development. But the idea of breaking ground for radar sites doesn't make sense."

Missile defense is a great concept, he adds, "but only if it works."

But in the current post-attack climate, even the moderate pro-missile defense stance seems increasingly out of favor. Never mind that the technology itself has yet to be proven -- the national sense of security appears to demand a quick fix. And that attitude is playing into the hands of the more dogmatic supporters of missile defense, such as the Heritage Foundation's Spencer, who says that any opposition to missile defense "sickens me." Their position is that we must keep funding missile-intercepting technology not to see if it works, but rather until it works.

The White House echoes that sentiment. When asked by NBC's Tim Russert Sunday on "Meet the Press" if missile defense was a waste of money, Vice President Dick Cheney responded quickly.

"I don't see, Tim, how anybody can argue that we cannot afford to defend America," said Cheney. "And I think for public officials to argue because we got hit with a terrorist assault, we should ignore the ballistic missile threat out there strikes me as irresponsible."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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