Clinton to Successor: Missile Defense Is All Yours

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Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. And Friday, in an auditorium filled with Georgetown University students, President Clinton made stalling for time sound like a reasonable political decision. For the moment, he announced, the United States will not proceed with its planned National Missile Defense system. The next President, who will have to reassess the planís various diplomatic and technical glitches, will make any decision to shift out of neutral. The $60 billion defense project was to be completed in 2006, but this delay could easily push that date back a year or two.

This, said the president, was essentially about buying another year of so to answer a few nagging questions. Explaining his decision, Clinton cited the most recent unsuccessful NMD test and pointed to continued tensions with Russia over the project, in particular the Russiansí unwillingness to renegotiate its 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with the U.S., which prohibits the creation of any national missile defense program. Whoever takes his place in the White House, Clinton explained, will now have a window of time to evaluate the situation, including any new developments or concessions, before making the critical decision.

As for Gore and Bush, both support a national missile defense system; the intensity of resolve, however, is different. Gore is not necessarily prepared to step over Russian objections and violate the ABM treaty in order to implement missile defense, while Bush is reportedly willing to take whatever steps necessary in order to deploy the system. Itís not clear which position will win public support; Americans reportedly are in favor of missile defense, but almost no one seems interested in exacerbating strains between the U.S. and Russia.

But thatís now for the newcomer to figure out: Clinton, for his part, managed to shed the debateís ugliness with his usual aplomb — sounding utterly reasonable and extremely diplomatic as he passed the buck. And itís fitting, somehow, that the decision made was not to make a decision. This is the beginning of the end of Clintonian international relations, after all, and as if on cue, history has started playing the President out the door.