Bush Drops a Bomb on the ABM Treaty

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Bush announces that the United States will withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty

Thursday morning, President Bush officially announced the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The timing left some on Capitol Hill grumbling. Why abandon the 30-year-old pact now? The administration insists the logic is simple: The ABM treaty no longer fits into a viable foreign policy — it represents an archaic Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Current relations between the U.S. and Russia are, in the administrations words, characterized by a "hope of greater prosperity and peace." The President said as much at a formal declaration in the Rose Garden: "I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks." Thursdays announcement means the U.S. will be free of the treaty in six months time.

Withdrawing from the treaty also means the administration is free to pursue the construction of a missile defense shield, one of its long-term goals and expressly prohibited by the ABM treaty. The shield, which could cost upwards of $80 billion, is not, Bush maintains, meant to in any way threaten Russia or any other "big power," but is rather meant to deter missile attacks from rogue nations — a possibility the administration considers more likely in the post-9/11 world.

The Russian response

While the Russians have not greeted the U.S. defection with open arms and champagne toasts, they do not seem overtly hostile to the idea. Some, however, including Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, have expressed "regret" at Bushs decision. "Russia can be unconcerned with its defense systems," Kasyanov said Wednesday. "Maybe other nations should be concerned if the United States chooses to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty." During his announcement Thursday, President Bush assured Americans that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken repeatedly about the treaty, and that no harm will come of the U.S. move. Putin declared Thursday he felt the withdrawal was a "mistake," but declined any further statements.

While its leaders offer a relatively imperturbable response to the U.S. withdrawal, there are plenty of reasons for Russia to vigorously oppose the decision: Technological and economic shortfalls mean the Russians cannot build their own missile defense shield, leaving the country without recourse once the U.S. withdrawal is complete. Both the U.S. and Russia currently have about 6,000 long-range ballistic missiles fitted with nuclear warheads — and the Russian stockpile would be virtually meaningless once a shield was in place. This is assuming the shield works, of course, and thats far from a foregone conclusion; the project is gargantuan, and hinges on technology that remains largely untested and unproved.

Theres opposition to the U.S. decision beyond Russia. Some of it is primarily philosophical: The French were caught off guard and left displeased by the U.S. decision, and the Germans also expressed some concern. Other fears were more concrete: Chinese leaders worry a missile defense shield will essentially negate their entire (minimal) nuclear arsenal — sparking fears of a new arms race in Asia. Many congressional Democrats echo those concerns. "Unilateral withdrawal will likely lead to an action-reaction cycle," Sen. Carl Levin told the Associated Press. "And that kind of arms race would not make us more secure," The Michigan Democrat is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and joins other high-ranking Dems in condemning the administrations decision.

Bushs decision garnered support abroad as well: In England, Conservatives rallied round the U.S., and urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to involve the UK in the development of the missile defense shield

Is this the right moment for missile defense?

Recent polls show the majority of Americans support a missile defense shield, and the administration appears totally committed to its completion. That does not mean there are not opposing views: There is some feeling that pursuing a missile defense shield at this particular moment is not the best use of resources, national attention — or increasingly precious budget dollars. Democrats whove been lobbying (largely unsuccessfully) for increased spending on homeland security measures, worry that deferring so much of the administrations energy to quitting the ABM treaty and the grueling implementation of a costly missile defense shield may leave other expensive programs — like increased border security, better intelligence training and financial assistance to areas hit hard by terrorism — languishing on the sidelines.

And then theres the issue of usability. Considering that we seem to be dealing with terrorists who are intent on using non-traditional weapons — i.e. biological and chemical weapons, or using our own airplanes as missiles — is the missile shield what we really need right now? Some Democrats, like Florida Representative Robert Wexler, argue that a missile shield would do very little to protect the country from an intangible and amorphous threat. "Our military forces have been designed primarily to fight a conventional war with a conventional enemy, and we've learned the hard way that as much destruction can be caused by an errant airplane as by a powerful bomb," Wexler told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in September, just after the attacks.

Despite opposition from Democrats and some arms control groups, the White Houses decision will not be challenged openly — in part because legislatively Congress is powerless to stop the President on this, but also because patriotism (and public support for national defense measures) is still running very high.