Missile Miss Gives Clinton Miles of Wiggle Room

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Missed, again. Still, don't expect the fact that the proposed missile defense system has thus far proved incapable of passing two out of three open-book tests — never mind combat simulations in which the "enemy" actually tries to confuse it with decoys — to put the kibosh on the controversial scheme. But the embarrassing mechanical failure in the test over the Pacific early Saturday does make life a lot easier for President Clinton and candidate Gore. Success would have forced the President to make a tough decision on go ahead with the program that threatens to destabilize existing arms-control agreements; its failure allows the President to punt the problem to the next occupant of the Oval Office. And, of course, the urgency of the decision had been created by the assessment that North Korea would be in a position to rain missiles on U.S. cities by 2005 — an assessment that has been pooh-poohed by many inside the administration and intelligence community, as well as European NATO members, China and Russia. Clinton may be given more wiggle room on the politically popular program next week when the nation's intelligence agencies meet to reassess North Korea's capability, as well as the expected fallout if the U.S. goes ahead.

The technical failure proves more embarrassing to advocates of the system, since critics had pointed out that the tests was primed to succeed by eliminating the most basic of decoys from the equation. Scientific critics have argued that the system has an inherent inability, in battlefield conditions, to distinguish an enemy warhead from a cone-shaped traffic beacon. Advocates counter that the tests are simply trying to establish whether the system can walk before trying to make it run. It doesn't help their case, though, that the interceptor system isn't even managing to stay on its feet yet.

But it's not only the scientific viability of the $60 billion system that's hotly contested between advocates and critics. For one thing, there's the sharp disagreement over the extent of the supposed threat to America's cities. Advocates, led by hawkish Republicans and their allies in the military and the arms industry, insist that North Korea could be in a position to drop warheads on your home town by 2005; critics dismiss this timetable. And even if Pyongyang, whose missile program has been dormant for the past two years, could muster the technical wherewithal to develop such long-range missiles, the naysayers argue, there are a growing number of political and economic factors militating against North Korea's pursuing this course.

Then there are the consequences: Building the system would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and Moscow has not only shown no interest in renegotiating the pact to allow Washington to go ahead, it has also warned that if the U.S. withdraws from the treaty all other arms-control agreements are null and void. The reason for Moscow's hostility is that they see the system as a precursor of a larger umbrella that could eventually neutralize the deterrent value of Russia's own nuclear arsenal. And its fears are well grounded — while President Clinton is considering a limited system involving some 20 interceptors to guard against one or two missiles fired by "rogue states," candidate George W. Bush has committed himself to a comprehensive, "Star Wars"-like anti-missile shield that would eliminate all threats. And, needless to say, the Chinese, whose long-range nuclear fleet comprises only about 20 single-warhead missiles, is taking the matter personally, because its own nuclear deterrent might be eliminated by even President Clinton's limited defense. Beijing has warned that if Washington goes ahead it will be forced to expand its own missile fleet, which might prompt India to do the same in response, triggering a similar response from Pakistan.

Despite the depth of opposition, though, the pressure on President Clinton to give the go-ahead may prove compelling. Missile defense remains overwhelmingly popular on Capitol Hill, and the Republicans would pounce on any caution by the administration to proclaim candidate Gore as soft on security. The test failure, though, gives both Clinton and Gore new latitude to simply delay committing to a final decision, inoculating Gore against Republican attack at the same time as placating Moscow and Beijing.