Missile Defense or Clinton's Self-Defense?

A salesman knocks on your door. "Have I got something for you," he says. "A device that will protect your home from bullets." Gunfire has never been a problem in your neighborhood, but these days one never knows, so you ask for more details. "A fusillade we cannot do much about. But single bullets we can stop." Does this system really work? "To be honest," he replies, "we have yet to achieve a fully successful test, but we have fudged some impressive test results that make it appear as if it works. But why wait? We're manufacturing this product before the tests are completed." The cost? "A million dollars." Well, that's a bit steep. Can't you order it after tests prove it actually does stop bullets? "Sorry, no." His cell phone rings. He listens for a moment and then says, "The price has just doubled. And, by the way, you'll probably hear that experts claim this home defender can be easily evaded and that some people who once worked for our firm consider this product a fraud. So how many can I put you down for?"

Welcome to the new Star Wars debate. One of the last really big decisions Bill Clinton will tackle as president will come this fall when he is scheduled to determine whether the United States should quickly build and deploy a national missile defense system, one that's supposed to protect the country from a nuclear missile or two that might be launched accidentally by a nuclear superpower (Russia or China) or intentionally by a so-called rogue state (Iraq or North Korea). Proponents of NMD are pumping up the propaganda machine. A conservative coalition announced plans to air pro-NMD ads on CNN. (Its Web site, www.ProtectAmericansNow.com, urges visitors to "enter your zip code and find out how vulnerable you are to missile attack." You then receive a "customized missile threat profile" showing the different weapons that can strike your community.) The run-up to Clinton's summit meeting with Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, has prompted much talk about how Clinton would broach the subject. Moscow is not keen on NMD and, so far, has been unamenable to amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits the sort of anti-missile program Clinton is considering. On the campaign trail, both Al Gore and George Bush are urging the construction of an NMD system. In Congress, Republicans are pushing for funds to start construction.

But there's no proof the thing will work. No unqualified successful test has been achieved. A mere three out of 19 scheduled intercept tests will be held before Clinton is supposed to render his decision. In fact, it will be four years before all elements of a missile defense can be tested together. The Pentagon has acknowledged bending its own rules on testing to keep up with the rush-rush-rush schedule.

The threat from mad-dog dictators is far from certain. (Would Saddam Hussein fire a single nuclear missile at the United States, knowing what he would receive in reply? Or consider this: why use a ballistic missile when a nuke in a suitcase might do the trick?) European officials -- that is, our allies -- have pooh-poohed the need for NMD, maintaining the threat is not pressing and that the establishment of an American anti-missile system might prompt Russia and China to bolster their nuclear arsenals. Several months ago, the French Defense Minister, Alain Richard, diplomatically observed, "French reticience [regarding NMD] is widely shared by the other European countries." A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that if a determined (and suicidal) foreign leader wished to hurl a nuclear missile at the United States, his weapon designers could easily whip up features that would defeat an NMD system. One former scientific adviser to the Navy on ballistic missiles claims that in a 1997 test the Pentagon's missile interceptors could not distinguish between incoming weapons and decoys and that the Pentagon contractor tried to cover up this all-important failure.

There's more reason for skepticism (or sad laughter). The system under consideration would use ground-based missiles based on a remote Alaskan island -- where conditions are so adverse that construction can only be conducted a few months out of the year. Imagine the servicing problems.

Moreover, the US military concedes it will be difficult to defend the site. As for the cost, the Clinton Administration estimates the tab of a "modest" NMD program at $25 billion over the next fifteen years. Of course, this figure cannot be regarded seriously. The Congesssional Budget Office says it could reach twice as much. FYI: The United States has already spent $120 billion on theater and national missile defense, without acquiring a single effective system. If it weren't for all the money being flushed, you'd think this was one huge policy-joke. Where's Peter Sellers when you need him?

But even though there is no indication NMD can succeed -- imagine a bullet hitting a bullet among decoy bullets -- NMD has much momentum behind it. Ever since Ronald Reagan's vast Star Wars scheme, which was to use space-based lasers, X-ray weapons and other Buck Rogers technology to shoot down hundreds of Russian ICBMs at once, fizzled, conservatives and Republicans have been insisting that Americans citizens ought to lie awake fearing nuclear attacks from small-fry nations and ought to demand protection against this remote threat. Clinton came into office as a missile defense skeptic, but in recent years, as Republicans have moved to deploy NMD as an issue against him, the President has bolstered anti-missile spending. Last year, he increased the NMD budget by $10.5 billion over six years. Here's more evidence that it is good for the Pentagon and military contractors to have a draft-dodger in the White House. As he has done so often, Clinton has attempted to absorb an issue that could inconvenience him (or Gore) politically. After all, who wants to be accused of leaving the nation vulnerable to crazed anti-American despots armed with nukes?

Gore has gone further than Clinton. He's already declared the United States should proceed with a limited NMD system, thereby endorsing the basic arguments of the rightwingers pushing this boondoggle. Still, Bush and Gore have bickered on this front, for Bush advocates a more extensive anti-missile program. "Our missile defense must be designated to protect all 50 states and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas from missile attacks by rogue nations or accidental launches," he says. If the limited system being explored by Clinton might cost up to $60 billion, the Bush plan, which would have to cover Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Europe, and Israel, will cost several times that. (And the allies in Europe don't even want the "protection" Bush is offering.) Gore has slammed Bush's NMD-for-all proposal as yet one more risky scheme. But the need for NMD, or lack thereof, and the system's feasability will not be issues in the presidential campaign.

The noise over NMD will get louder as Clinton's decision nears. The next test, which was set for June 26, has been delayed until July 7 due to technical problems with the "kill vehicle." But if that test flops, the NMDers will not throttle back. They will keep the pressure on Clinton. Will he buckle and embrace the role of huckster salesman? If so, it will be the slickest, and perhaps costliest, con of his presidency.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation. His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published recently by St. Martin's Press.

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