Q&A: 'Democrat Qualms Won't Stop Bush Quitting Missile Treaty'

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An unarmed Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile is launched

TIME.com: A U.S. official has warned that unless Moscow agrees to revise the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty by November, Washington will withdraw from the treaty in order to forge ahead with building a missile defense system. But Senate Democrats have vowed to keep the U.S. from walking away from the treaty — will the Bush administration be able to carry out its threat?

Mark Thompson: Even though treaties have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the Senate, the ability to withdraw from a treaty is unilaterally vested in the executive branch. That means that while the Democrats can make a lot of noise, there's not a lot they can do to actually stop the President withdrawing from the treaty. If (Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman) Senator Joe Biden and others choose to make trouble, they may be able to slow things down, but the administration ultimately has a free hand here.

But Senator Biden has warned that the Democrats would consider using their control of the Senate to withhold funding for the missile defense program if it's pursued outside of the framework of arms-control treaties…

That's bizarre, because only three years ago both houses of Congress ordered the executive branch to deploy a national missile defense as soon as technologically feasible. That's the law of the land, and it can't be applied if they don't make money available. Withdrawing from the ABM treaty may create the first crease in congressional thinking on missile defense, but I think there's still a solid majority in both houses in favor of it. The numbers may shift a little if it involves abrogating the ABM treaty, but it's too early to say whether they'll shift enough to change the outcome. Congress ordered this done, even if many legislators may now come to regret it.

The Democrats are going to point to the administration's refusal to continue funding a program to decommission Russian nuclear warheads which may fall into the wrong hands as a sign of misplaced priorities by the Bush administration. After all, the program costs a tiny fraction of the budget for missile defense…

There plainly is a latent streak in the administration of opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and these people want to resume testing of nuclear weapons in order to develop new ones. They believe the current stockpile stewardship program is dangerous to national security, and argue that if a small number of nuclear weapons are required to maintain U.S. national security then there should be testing and development of those weapons. But on the other side, there are those who maintain that it will be impossible to rid the world of nuclear weapons, which is the goal of the non-proliferation treaty.

There are clear differences inside the administration on the question of the ABM treaty and missile defense. How will these affect the outcome?

Secretary of State Powell would plainly like to preserve the treaty, but the President doesn't care. So Powell knows if Moscow doesn't budge, this treaty is going down.

How about the Pentagon? Are they pushing for missile defense?

No, the Pentagon doesn't much like missile defense, because it's going to suck a lot of money from things they consider more important priorities — tanks, troops, ships, things they can move around on the battlefield. Guys in the Pentagon will talk about missile defense as pie-in-the-sky, but that won't really weigh on the bureaucratic outcome. That will depend primarily on the President, and whereas he kept out of the issue of remaking the military, leaving it to Secretary Rumsfeld, who ultimately punted, he's more likely to press hard for missile defense. And if he does, it will happen no matter what the military thinks.

How do you read the Russian strategy? Despite the bonhomie between Presidents Bush and Putin, Moscow appears to have dug in its heels against revising the ABM treaty. At the same time, though, they regard missile defense as a somewhat eccentric American obsession that has little direct bearing on the real global security situation right now…

The Russians are going to keep on resisting a deal in order to get as much as they can, and then ultimately agree on some formula to allow it go ahead. That may not mean allowing modifications to the ABM, but since the Bush administration is fully prepared to back out of the treaty, that doesn't make much difference. The question is to what degree an abrogation of the ABM treaty will lead to a rupture between the U.S. and Russia. Will it be a smooth transition or a rough one? It's too early to say, but we'll know in the next couple of months.