National Missile Defense: Time to Pull the Plug on the Fraud of the Century
William D. Hartung
If you’re not a nuclear weapons expert, you were probably surprised to learn that President Clinton is about to move forward with a $60 billion missile defense program designed to defend us from nuclear attack by “rogue states” like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. That’s a heck of a lot of money, even by Pentagon standards. But the price tag on Clinton and Gore’s “limited” National Missile Defense (NMD) program pales in comparison with the $120 to $240 billion George W. Bush is planning to plunk down in pursuit of his vision of a bigger, better, nuttier “Star Wars II” missile defense scheme.
Why are we even debating this issue? The Cold War is over. We are far safer from attack by a long-range ballistic missile than we were during the days of the U.S.-Soviet superpower standoff. Even our own intelligence community acknowledges that none of the rogue states – now called “states of concern” by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – have missiles that can reach U.S. soil. And independent experts agree that they may not develop that capability for another 5 to 15 years, if ever.
In the meantime, North Korea has agreed to cap its nuclear weapons and missile test programs, and is in the process of seeking normal relations with South Korea and the United States. Robert Walpole, the nation’s top expert on missile proliferation, has repeatedly pointed out that a ballistic missile is the least likely method a foreign nation would use to attack us with a weapon of mass destruction: we would know who launched it, and that nation would be immediately subjected to a devastating counter-attack.
Even if there were an urgent rationale for building an NMD system, the technology is simply not ready. The system has failed in two of its first three tests, and missile expert Dr. Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has persuasively alleged that the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and key contractors like TRW and Boeing have engaged in criminal fraud in the NMD testing program.
So why are we doing this? Sadly, because both President Clinton and his hard right Republican adversaries have been playing politics with national defense. Ever since the “Gingrich revolution” of 1994, “new look” conservatives like Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have been putting on a full court press to restore Ronald Reagan’s dream of an impenetrable shield that could render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”
The Republican true believers fail to recognize that it is their own warmed-over Reaganism that is impotent and obsolete. Ronald Reagan never built Star Wars, but he did agree to deep cuts in U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). Weldon, Kyl and company are worshiping the wrong Ronald Reagan – the out-of-touch, ketchup-is-a-vegetable, nuclear-war-is-winnable ideologue, not the second-term pragmatist who finally realized that nuclear weapons serve no good purpose and should be drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether.
So where is Al Gore in all this? Lost in the triangulation. Clinton and Gore have taken such pains to avoid looking “soft on defense” on the missile defense issue that they have ended up being “soft on defense contractors,” shoveling billions of dollars of our tax money to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing for a dangerous, unworkable scheme that threatens to spark a new global nuclear arms race. On the urgent issue of nuclear disarmament, Bill Clinton has been treading water. He is the first president since the dawn of the atomic age who has not negotiated a single significant arms control agreement. This record of indifference and inaction on the nuclear threat is far more shameful (and consequential) than his behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
If Al Gore and Joe Lieberman want to distinguish themselves from the failings of Bill Clinton and the excesses of Bush/Cheney Republicanism, they can start by grounding the missile defense program. The threat has been exaggerated, the technology is not ready, and we have more pressing national needs – both within and outside the defense budget. They should empanel a group of independent scientific experts (folks who are not on the payroll of the Pentagon or the major weapons makers) to restructure NMD as a RESEARCH program. The goal of the new missile defense program should be to determine whether there are better ways to defend U.S. troops and U.S. allies against medium-range, Scud-style missiles – the only realistic missile threat worth worrying about for the foreseeable future.
Al Gore and Joe Lieberman can demonstrate leadership -- and character -- by admitting the Clinton administration’s mistakes on National Missile Defense and reclaiming the vital center of the national security debate.