Star Wars II: Don’t Delay It, Kill It

President Clinton’s September 1st decision to delay deployment of the Pentagon’s proposed National Missile Defense (NMD) system is an example of good policy and good politics.

On the policy front, Clinton’s decision opens the way for long overdue discussions with Moscow on reductions in the United States and Russia’s bloated nuclear arsenals. It also adds credibility to Washington’s ongoing efforts to get nuclear weapons “wannabes” like North Korea and Iran to abandon their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Politically, the President’s decision to put missile defense on hold puts the brakes on the costly and misguided Clinton/Gore policy of running scared in the face of right-wing Republican charges that they are somehow “soft on defense” just because they’re not willing to fund every half-baked weapons scheme dreamed up by the military-industrial complex.

Clinton’s decision to stop the mad rush towards deployment of NMD is more than justified by the reality of the threats we face. As Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace amply demonstrated in a recent report, the United States is far safer from attack by ballistic missiles now than it was at the outset of the 1990s. Meanwhile, the purported ballistic missile threat isn’t even on the radar screen of most Americans. In fact, when asked, a majority of Americans have expressed opposition to the deployment of missile defenses, particularly if that deployment comes with the $60 billion-plus price tag attached to the Pentagon’s “limited” NMD proposal.

Most of the shouting about missile defenses has come from a small clique of conservative true believers on Capitol Hill who work hand-in-hand with right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Frank Gaffney’s corporate-financed Center for Security Policy, a highly efficient boiler room operation that devotes most of its time to blast-faxing out exaggerated alarms regarding the missile threat to the United States. Clinton’s announcement that NMD isn’t ready for prime time will hopefully push these ritualistic Star Warriors back towards the margins of the nation’s national security debate, where they belong.

For better of for worse, there is no technical “quick fix” for the problem of nuclear weapons, and the sooner we realize that as a nation, the better off we’ll be. As President Clinton noted in his speech at Georgetown, even if they could be made to work, missile defenses would at best add a modest margin of protection from nuclear weapons. At worst, they could spark a new, multi-sided nuclear arms race that would increase the risks of nuclear war, by accident or design. Clinton rightly suggested that the threat of U.S. retaliation (deterrence) and a more consistent reliance on cooperative diplomacy will be far more effective in protecting us from nuclear weapons than a revived “Star Wars” program ever could be.

The only real flaw in Clinton’s decision was that he didn’t go far enough. By accepting the notion that we are under a grave threat of attack by nuclear-armed ballistic missiles launched by some power-crazed Third World potentate at some time in the foreseeable future, the President left the door open to a second Star Wars revival in the early part of the Bush or Gore administration. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and a motley crew of missile defense enthusiasts are standing ready will all kinds of nifty new missile defense proposals * from airborne and space-based lasers to ship-based interceptors aimed at intercepting enemy missiles in their “boost phase,” shortly after they have been launched. Never mind that many of these approaches are as costly, dangerous, and unworkable as the NMD plan they are being touted to replace * there’s gold in missile programs, and absent strong presidential leadership to the contrary, the weapons industry will find a way to mine that gold at taxpayer’s expense.

The only truly reliable defense against these devastating weapons is to get rid of them, once and for all. Instead of debating about how quickly to proceed with missile defenses, Al Gore and George W. Bush should be debating how quickly we can get rid of nuclear weapons. That would be a fitting second act to President Clinton’s wise decision to put the Pentagon’s latest missile defense scheme on hold.