Sense and Missile Defense

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An unfortunate typo in a Reuters report at the weekend may hint at the Bush administration’s troubles in selling America’s allies on missile defense. "A system of defense need not be perfect," the wire service quoted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as telling European security chiefs gathered in Germany. "But the American people must not be left completely senseless."

Rumsfeld, of course, actually said "defenseless." But the Reuters error may be an inadvertent pointer to the fact that the administration is struggling to develop a coherent message on the issue. Washington's allies in NATO are opposed to the U.S. building even a limited missile shield aimed at the hypothetical missile capabilities of "rogue" states, out of concern that such a move would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and prompt Russia and China to update and expand their own missile capability to compensate for their perceived strategic disadvantage if a missile shield is built.

Rumsfeld had been sent to pitch the system to the continentals, but he appears to have registered little progress. And that bodes ill for President Bush’s meetings with Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Monday, and with Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair later this month. The British share many of Europe’s concerns, while Chretien issued a joint statement with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin late last year insisting that Washington respect the ABM treaty.

Changing skeptical minds is even more difficult because the administration is sending mixed messages on the issue. It's been clear since Day 1 of the Bush administration that the U.S. plans to press ahead and build a National Missile Defense system — whatever that means — but the rest appears to be somewhat up for grabs.

In a bid to avoid offending the Europeans (on whose soil some of the radar components of the system currently envisaged would have to be sited), Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted Sunday that Washington would proceed only after extensive consultations with its allies. But what does "consultation" mean? Powell said it meant listening to their views and allowing them to guide U.S. actions, at the same time as working to persuade them to accept the missile defense principle being pursued by Washington. Officials around Rumsfeld saw "consultation" as being just what their boss had done in Europe — particularly his offer to help the Europeans build missile shields of their own. But Europe showed little interest in buying into an at-this-point-hypothetical multibillion dollar system designed to counter a threat they don’t take nearly as seriously as the current administration in Washington. Europe's primary concern is to restrain the U.S. from an initiative that could restart the arms race with the Russians.

And so Rumsfeld toned down for his meeting with the Europeans, soft-pedaling on the ABM issue and focusing his pitch on limited missile defense against "rogue" nations. He even laid out the somewhat improbable scenario of a missile-defenseless U.S. being intimidated by some Third World bully from staying out of a regional conflict for fear of being attacked. The Europeans are unlikely to swallow that argument from a nation whose current secretary of state once warned North Korea's Kim Jong Il that if he even threatened the U.S. with nuclear weapons, he'd be "turned into a charcoal briquette." But, Rumsfeld was prepared to use that awareness, too, warning the Europeans that without a missile shield the U.S. might be forced to launch a preemptive strike against a rogue state. Then again, he gave the Europeans little reason to believe the U.S. would deploy a system of sufficient reliability to deter it from launching a preemptive strike anyway, just to be on the safe side. "A system of defense need not be perfect, but the American people must not be left completely defenseless," he said. Think about that one for a moment: Allowing for any margin of error in the functioning of a multibillion dollar system designed to stop the odd missile fired by a rogue state renders it pointless. It's rather like applying the "need not be perfect" standard to a condom.

Back home on CNN, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice added accidentally-fired Russian missiles to the list of reasons necessitating the shield. But that's not going to help sell it to the Russians. After all, in the realm of the hypothetical, it has to be considered as likely that Moscow could "accidentally" launch 200 missiles as it could "accidentally" launch one. All of which feeds the Russian suspicion that even the proposed limited missile defense scheme is simply the precursor of a Star Wars revival.

Beyond the politics of selling it to skeptical allies, the Bush administration faces an immediate practical dilemma over missile defense — whether to proceed with the ill-starred system initiated under the Clinton administration, or to start from scratch on a more comprehensive system using weapons launched either at sea or in space. While the latter option is backed by those most fervently carrying the Star Wars torch, in a more limited version it also has the support of a number of Senate Democrats, Europeans and even the Russians — a sea-launched "boost phase" system designed to intercept missiles before they leave the atmosphere, rather than the current ground-based system designed to intercept an incoming warhead in space. (Moscow like it because it could effectively neutralize "rogue" state missiles, but not ICBMs fired from deep inside the Russian heartland.) But opting for such a system means pretty much starting from scratch, and pouring billions of dollars into a system that will take some time to develop.

President Bush's reluctance to increase defense spending right now, the "boost phase" scheme becomes a project for the backburner. Instead, the administration may be more inclined to press ahead with the Clinton scheme to deploy some 20 missiles by 2006 as an initial phase — even though the system has so far failed two out of three tests rigged to reduce the chances of failure — hence Rumsfeld's permissive take on perfection. In the end, though, the NATO allies will take a more basic message from the diplomatic efforts of Messrs. Rumsfeld and Bush: We're happy to discuss missile defense with you till those mad cows come home and we know it won't necessarily work, but we're going to build it anyway.