Daschle Spikes Bush's Guns on Missile Defense

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Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle

President Bush claimed to have read Vladimir Putin's soul by looking into the Russian President's eyes. Now he may need to ascertain what lies behind Putin's Cheshire-cat smile — because the immediate future of Bush's prized missile defense scheme may be decided by the Russian leader. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle sounded notice Thursday that his party would use its control of the Senate to restrain the administration from acting unilaterally — and on missile defense that means negotiating an agreement with the Russians.

Right now, the planned missile shield would violate the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, and Russia and China have voiced strong objections. Washington's European allies are mostly agnostic on missile defense, signaling that they'll support the scheme only if the U.S. can persuade the Russians to agree to renegotiate the ABM pact. And last week, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator Joe Biden — currently in China discussing missile matters with Jiang Zemin — warned that his party would stop the funding for missile defense if the administration went ahead amid opposition from Russia, China and U.S. allies.

There's a growing assertiveness on the part of Bush administration critics in the Senate about using their muscle to rein in the White House on foreign policy issues.
Daschle's comments formed part of a withering broadside against the Bush administration's foreign policy performance, in which he excoriated the President for alienating U.S. allies by seeking to act unilaterally, and also for his "single-minded" attachment to missile defense at the expense of more pressing security issues. Reaching for support in the Pentagon, Senator Daschle accused the administration of siphoning funds away from more urgent military needs toward developing a missile shield, which he called "the most expensive possible response to the least likely threat we face." Instead, the Senate leader called for a reallocation for some funds away from missile defense towards improvement of "theater" missile defenses to protect U.S. personnel in combat situations from short-range and cruise missile attack, for counter-terrorism programs and for an under-funded scheme to help Russia destroy nuclear weapons.

The speech signaled a growing assertiveness on the part of Bush administration critics in the Senate about using their muscle to rein in the White House on foreign policy issues. Missile defense may be the most immediate flash-point, but the administration also faces criticism over global warming. Last week, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman issued a joint statement criticizing the Bush administration's isolation from international negotiations over measures to curb global warming, and urged the U.S. to set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. A rejection of the very principle of mandatory caps had prompted President Bush to nix the Kyoto treaty, and the Lieberman-McCain statement suggests the Senate will try to cajole the White House back towards engagement with the wider international community on Kyoto.

For a president fighting a perception that he's a policy lightweight to make his mark on the international stage, the Democrats' attack couldn't have come at a worse moment. Daschle's comments may be reassuring to long-time U.S. allies who have grown increasingly alarmed by what has been perceived as a strongly unilateralist instinct of the Bush administration. And a more assertive Democratic leadership in the Senate may also reinforce the position of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration's ranking foreign policy dove, in areas of conflict with the more hawkish Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld. But it also sounds a message on the world stage that the President's is not necessarily the last word of the United States — a problem with which a certain Mr. Clinton was more than a little familiar.