Missile Report Poses a Dilemma for Clinton and Gore

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"Where will you be when the missiles come?" asks a recent alarmist TV ad promoting national missile defense. The answer for Al Gore, of course, will be "on the campaign trail." Because although nobody's likely to fire missiles at the U.S. anytime soon, that won't deter Governor Bush from mercilessly beating up on the Clinton administration's ambivalence over the system. And the latest leaked intelligence finding by the nation's spy agencies is less likely to help President Clinton make up his mind than it is to exacerbate his dilemma.

The finding predicts that U.S. deployment of even the limited missile defense system currently under consideration will provoke China into substantially increasing its own missile arsenal — the proposed system may be targeted at "rogue" states, but it could effectively neutralize China's small nuclear deterrent. And Chinese expansion would spark a regional domino effect, compelling India to counter Beijing's expanded capability by increasing its own, which would naturally force Pakistan to do the same and, if anything, increase the danger of "rogue" nuclear activity. Moreover, the spy agencies warn, without an as yet elusive agreement from Moscow, deployment of the system could also prompt Russia to withdraw from various existing arms control treaties and to add to the number of warheads atop some of the missiles currently in its fleet.

But if those arguments speak to the dove in Clinton, the report also warns that despite North Korea's suspension of its missile program and efforts at diplomatic rapprochement, it remains capable of deploying a missile that could threaten the U.S. a lot sooner than 2015, which is when the spy agencies agree the U.S. potentially becomes vulnerable to missile threats from states such as Iran and Iraq. And in a second, unclassified report released to Congress Wednesday, the CIA reports that Russian firms are helping Iran develop its missile capability, while China continues to provide such assistance to Pakistan. In other words, there are a growing number of missiles in the hands of people not bound by Cold War keep-the-peace conventions.

Coming on top of the system's failure to pass two out of three basic tests in the past year, the intelligence assessment will likely prompt President Clinton to fudge — he won't kill the program, but he may simply leave it on life support for his successor to determine its fate. But Governor Bush is a lot more bullish on missile defense, charging that the limited system currently on offer is inadequate, and that only a comprehensive interceptor system capable of neutralizing all threats, whether from Iraq or from Russia, can protect America. That's essentially a reprise of President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, and it's a far easier sell on the campaign trail than the nuanced calculations involved in the limited scheme. And the administration clearly recognizes the electoral appeal of the idea of missile defense — after all, President Clinton first signed on to the system in 1996, as part of the "rebranding" of his presidency under the tutelage of Dick Morris.