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Jewish World Review / April 28, 1998 / 2 Iyar, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Reagan was right

IN TIMES OF peace and prosperity, it is difficult to focus people's minds on seemingly distant threats or dangers. For a few brief hours last month, we thought we had detected a potentially catastrophic meteor heading Earth's way, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Had our meteoric menace been real, it would certainly have given a boost to space-based defense funding. But now, we've returned to our sleepy complacency.

There are other dangers out there. They don't grab headlines like an intergalactic stalker, but they could threaten huge numbers of Americans with nuclear, chemical and biological death.

President Reagan Most Americans are under the comforting misimpression that the United States already has the means to defend itself against ballistic missiles. When Gen. Charles Horner, former head of U.S. Space Command, took visitors on tours of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, most were surprised to learn that the United States has the capacity to detect a missile launched at our country but absolutely no ability to stop it. Our only option is that of retaliation.

When President Ronald Reagan proposed an anti-missile defense system to protect the American population in the 1980s, he was met with disdain and furious opposition from the Democratic Party and the opinion elites. His idea was scorned as needlessly provocative as well as technically impossible. What Reagan called the Strategic Defense Initiative was immediately caricatured and dismissed as "Star Wars."

When the Soviet empire collapsed in the early 1990s, the Bush administration scaled back funding for anti-missile defenses, focusing only on battlefield systems such as the Patriot missile, which was deployed (rather unsuccessfully, as it turns out) against Iraqi Scuds in the Gulf War.

But while the Soviet Union is gone, the threat from missile attack is not. As former CIA Director R. James Woolsey put it on a videotape distributed by the Center for Security Policy, "It's as if we'd been in a 45-year struggle with a dragon. We have killed the dragon and now find ourselves in a jungle full of poisonous snakes. In a way, the dragon was easier to keep track of."

And Woolsey is specific. Who are the snakes? "Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Hezbollah, Om Shimriku." All of these nations and groups, with technical help and materiel from Russia and China, have well-developed missile programs. Iraq and Libya, of course, are seeking to acquire every weapon of mass destruction they can lay their hands on.

We continue to stand naked before missiles launched by any aggressor, as well as those launched accidentally. And we do so as a matter of national policy.

Since the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, it has been official U.S. policy not to defend our population against missile attack. The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction was our shield.

Whatever the merits of that approach during the Cold War (Reagan found it immoral), we are now living by a treaty signed with a nation that no longer exists.

Moreover, as a front-page story in The Washington Post makes clear, the investment in missile defense technologies has taken us seven-eighths of the way down the road to a deployable system. We need only to finish the job. "There are no more scientific unknowns from this point," Shell Wald, a Raytheon weapons specialist, told The Washington Post. "It's just a matter of straight engineering. We are so close. I could taste it. It's no longer a question of if, but when."

When, though, is a political question, not a military or technological one. The Clinton administration would prefer to rely on arms-control agreements, like the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and limits on technology transfers. (Though the recent decision by the president to approve the transfer of missile guidance technology to China, against the advice of the Pentagon, would seem to vitiate that claim.)

Treaties have never inhibited aggressors in the past and will not do so in the future. By not moving forward on missile defense, we are wasting the billions already invested and failing the American people.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.