Russia Won't Buy Bill's Missile-Defense Wiggle

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It, er, depends on what you mean by "is," Mr. Putin.... Clinton administration lawyers appear to have come up with a classically Clintonesque solution to their missile-defense dilemma. The New York Times reports Thursday that the administration's best legal brains have eschewed conventional wisdom, which holds any effort to start work on deploying a new missile defense system as a violation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Instead, they reportedly argue that the U.S. can begin clearing the system's proposed site on the Alaskan island of Shemya, and even pour its concrete foundations, without technically violating the agreement. But there is no court that umpires adherence to arms-control treaties, and Clinton's legal team is extremely unlikely to convince Russia's President Vladimir Putin that Washington isn't fouling out.

Still, the significance of shifting the legal interpretation goes to the roots of President Clinton's missile-defense predicament: In order to meet his own 2005 deadline for deploying a system designed to defend against missiles fired by "rogue states" — and to defend himself and Vice President Gore from Republican charges that they've left America wide open to all manner of future imagined nuclear missile threats — the President has to give the go-ahead this fall to start work on the site next spring. That timetable, though, is based on a legal interpretation that the proposed work is in violation of the ABM treaty. By that reading, if the Russians won't green-light the system, Washington would have to alert Moscow in the fall in order to comply with the requirement that either side give six months' notice of a decision to pull out of the treaty. The Russians have refused to give such a green light because even the limited system President Clinton wants deployed is the crucial first step toward the comprehensive missile umbrella favored by Republicans, which would neutralize Russia's nuclear arsenal.

Now, instead of being forced to make a tough choice ahead of the presidential election, Clinton is being offered new wiggle room by his lawyers. After all, if clearing the site and pouring the concrete can be deemed to be within the bounds of the ABM treaty, then the White House can at once quiet Republican criticism by showing that it is building a missile defense system and insist to Moscow that it isn't violating the treaty. But though slick lawyering may give Clinton the opportunity to punt the issue of whether to scrap the ABM treaty into the next presidency, the Russians watch CNN, too — and they know that the concrete President Clinton would order poured on a frostbitten Alaskan island isn't for a barbecue pit. He may be better off whispering to Putin what some of his experts are quietly telling him — that the system can't work.