A Salesman On The Road

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Tony Blair was doing his loyal best to stick up for a new American President. George W. Bush sat with the British Prime Minister at his country house last Thursday afternoon, chewing over Bush's determination to build a U.S. missile shield. The President was pressing to take the Atlantic alliance and the world in a brave new direction, moving from an era of treaties and verification to one of...well, Blair didn't know what. He wanted a few details to play against the angst felt by his European confreres. "What do you want me to support?" he asked. "What are you proposing?" Speaking to the press just after the meeting, Bush hunched his shoulders and zeroed in on his dilemma. "It's hard," he acknowledged, "for any country to commit to vague notions."

Exactly. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration was loudly warning last week that national missile defense is virtually a fait accompli. It's coming, whatever it is.

But what's the rush? Of all the priorities the President could be spending his political capital and the country's resources on, exactly why has he chosen to make missile defense so urgent? There's no public clamor for it; no one knows if it works; most of America's friends and rivals hate it; and the incoming rogue ICBMs it is supposed to obliterate don't yet exist. But Bush's insistence on deploying a Son of Star Wars a.s.a.p. formed the edgy subtext of his meetings with European leaders in Genoa and the top talking point for his second sitdown with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bush is in love with the idea. Installing a missile shield--making it the keystone of a visionary strategic architecture--is his greatest faith-based initiative. The Administration intends to "explain" its plan over and over until it comes true. That worked with tax cuts.

So Bush was stung last week when Senate majority leader Tom Daschle undercut his campaign by suggesting that the President's foreign policy imperatives are "isolating" and "minimizing" America. When Bush heard about the remarks, he snapped, "Check that. That can't be right." After a very "chilly" call from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Daschle apologized for his timing--but not for his point.

Missile defense is a far tougher sell than tax cuts, with a mountain of technical, political and diplomatic obstacles. The killer missile last week that destroyed a dummy warhead was only the second success in four tries. Defense-shield boosters hailed it as a significant victory, even if it was more important politically than technologically. And the Pentagon knows that, which is why advocates used the afterglow to roll out an array of planned "boost phase," "midcourse" and "terminal phase" experiments from land, sea, air and space bases.

The basic theory is so appealing: to replace cold war reliance on mutual suicide with 21st century security beneath a defensive umbrella. Though Russia and China possess by far the most nukes that could incinerate the U.S., the Administration says its shield isn't so much for protection from them but to defend against the possibility that a nasty regime in North Korea or Iraq or Iran will soon be able to loft a missile at America. A nuke is more likely to come in a suitcase than on a warhead, but the hurry-up argument doesn't deal with that fact. "We're already too late," says an aide.

You have to believe that premise for the rest to follow. It's very Reaganesque. Where the former President saw a Russian lurking behind every bedpost, Bush sees rogue nations holding America hostage. Where Reagan liked simple story lines, Bush likes executive summaries. A missile shield is a succinct solution to a complex problem. Like Reagan, Bush prides himself on cowboy toughness--on being a man who knows what he believes and charges fearlessly ahead.

Like Reagan too, Bush was unschooled in foreign policy when he ran for President. Along the way, he absorbed the passion of his briefers, Star Wars true believers from the Reagan days brought together by Rice to tutor him in the canons of their strategic religion. Those voices evidently captured his imagination, and now in his Administration, led vigorously by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they urge him on.

The radical decision Bush has recently made is to move full speed on a defense system that runs afoul of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which limits testing and deployment of new defensive systems. Critics say the rapid-fire tests that could bust the treaty are designed to do so; for some Bush advisers, getting rid of ABM is an end in itself.

Standing in the way is Putin. Russia, like China--with whom Putin last week signed a treaty of "friendship forever" that aligns them politically against missile defense--charges that the U.S. shield will wreck nuclear stability and spark a new arms race. More practically, Russia is the other party to the ABM treaty. The tests the Pentagon has in mind will violate its terms "within months, not years," says a freshly circulated State Department memo. Officials talk of deployment as early as 2004. That schedule turns the screws on Putin to modify the treaty to suit Washington right away--or the U.S. will simply pull out.

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