Reframing the Debate on Missile Defenses

President Bush and his Republican colleagues should be congratulated for their call to end our vulnerability to nuclear weapons and to reach beyond cold war policies. The key question is: how should we end this vulnerability.

The Republican Party offers a vision based on high-tech military might. In contrast, most Americans and most of the world prefer a strategy that would eliminate the nuclear threat completely, through a system of verified and enforceable disarmament. The modern Republican Party, however, has turned its back on the Ronald Reagan motto “Trust but Verify” in favor of “Won’t Trust, Can’t Verify.” The president and his advisers have decided to set aside not just the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty but also other legally binding constraints on U.S. weapons.

The choice for Americans and for the world is now between two options: a strategy based on international law aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons, and a policy that rejects international legal controls and relies solely on military force. This choice between law and disarmament on the one hand and lawless war-fighting on the other is obscured by the political debate inside the beltway. Both Republicans and Democrats are confusing the issue. The White House is keen to talk a language of reassurance that ignores the attack-orientated format of the U.S. armed forces. The Democrats and most of the arms-control community are hung up defending the ABM Treaty and the continuation of nuclear deterrence. Much of the argument on missile “defenses” has centered on the questions: Will it work? How much will it cost? The problem with this approach is that it provides no response to the challenge: “If it works and if it’s cheap, you have no objection in principle.”

The other often-used objection to missile defense is the negative impact on world opinion. But, again, this leaves wide open the question of how to deal with the problem of vulnerability. Americans need to be clear in their own minds about how their security should be maintained rather relying on what foreigners are upset about.

A clearer picture of the implication of missile “defenses” emerges when these defense systems are considered in their military context. If America ever went to war in Korea, the U.S. Army and Air Force in South Korea would fight alongside their South Korean partners with strong support from the U.S. Pacific fleet, the Marines, and U.S.-based air power. Missile defense would be there to pick off any missiles that survived U.S. strikes. A similar use of U.S. conventional weapons to counter opposing forces could negate almost all of Russia and China’s nuclear arsenals today. China’s force is small but even Russia’s 400 or so nuclear missile launchers could be overwhelmed by the thousands of cruise missiles and stealth bombers in the U.S. arsenal. U.S. security planners have long been obsessed with giving the president an option to win a nuclear war without tossing the entire planet into the incinerator of a nuclear holocaust. What better way than to use smart conventional weapons to negate the other side’s nukes?

The Clinton administration spent some energy working this out and even tested the Navy’s Trident ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The incoming Bush team backs the idea of “counterforce” as the basis of U.S. security strategy, as several of the people the president has now appointed to key positions described in the National Institute for Public Policy report on nuclear weapons ( Nuclear weapons can be dramatically reduced if conventional weapons can be used to attack an opponent’s nuclear arsenal. Even a dramatic reduction to some 900 deployed nuclear weapons would still leave the U.S. with two warheads for each Russian missile–not even counting the smart weapons in the U.S. stockpile. Building on this present U.S. supremacy, the Bush administration is now determined to build up a full range of missile shields not only targeted at incoming missiles but also at non-U.S. satellites. In fact, the proposed lasers in space–which may be tested in a few years time–will be far more effective against these satellites than against enemy rockets. In the language of the U.S. Space Command, lasers are weapons for dominating the full spectrum of conflict.

This strategy has one critical flaw, even for advocates of missile technology. Americans are very reluctant to go to war and politicians in Washington are scared stiff that even one soldier might get killed. So the problem with adopting a policy based so much on military force is that it cuts out real policy options that can be used. Politicians often refer to Teddy Roosevelt’s recommendation, “Talk softly and carry a big stick.” That strategy seems to have been replaced with a new posturing: “Talk loudly and carry an enormous club you can’t use.”

In comparison with this over-militarized approach, a policy of disarmament and threat elimination would be cheap and practical. The U.S. allies in NATO have been trying to persuade the administration to consider such a policy but with no luck thus far. There is now a clear road map to a world free of the threat from weapons of mass destruction through a series of treaties that already outlaw chemical and biological arms and could do the same for nuclear weapons. Inspectors would leave no stone unturned and would be backed up by military force. Back during the Gulf War, Bush Sr. built a global consensus to take on Saddam Hussein, but that unity has been squandered as the U.S. has pursued hostile policies toward Russia and has taken sides in the Middle East. Leading the world toward a freedom from fear of weapons of mass destruction would help rebuild the consensus. Instead, we have a president who rejects using law to control weapons–be they hand guns at home or nuclear weapons abroad. He is leading the world toward nuclear anarchy with a grin, a wave, and slap on the back.