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Jewish World Review March 16, 2001 / 21 Adar 5761

Evan Gahr

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Consumer Reports

Missile defense zealots -- LOOK out for the naysayers. As the new administration wrestles with the proposed National Missile Defense System, the gloom and doomers wait in the wings. They profess to offer even more "expert" analysis. . Why take this motley bunch of journalists, politicians and scientists is treated seriously? Let's take a stroll down memory lane. How did their previous assertions in the related debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative collide with reality?

When President Reagan first proposed that the United States set itself to building a defense against nuclear missile attack, Democrats and political liberals went ballistic. The New York Times called Reagan's proposal for a shield against atomic blackmail "a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy." The Chicago Sun-Times suggested it was "an appalling disservice" even to propose such a system. "Never in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine our President taking to the national airwaves to promote a strategy of futuristic 'Star Wars' schemes as Mr. Reagan did," sneered Congressman Ted Weiss of New York.

Then-Representative Barbara Boxer, now a Democratic Senator from California, referred to missile defense in 1988 as the President's "astrological dream." Democratic Party standard bearer Michael Dukakis declared that the "Reagan administration's SDI program is a fantasy--a technological illusion which most scientists say cannot be achieved in the foreseeable future. The defenses they envision won't make the United States more secure." Rather, he insisted, missile defense would fuel an arms race and increase the probability of nuclear war.An even more judgmental Jesse Jackson found SDI pregnant with the possibility of all sorts of disruptions. "Star Wars is a cruel hoax. It offers an impossible technological solution to a political problem. It will cost over a trillion dollars if pursued, and in the end will not produce a defense but an arms race in the heavens. Our coffers will be robbed; our science distorted." Too bad he didn't have a dream.

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) howled that missile defense zealots were roaming the hallways of MIT "like vultures," hoping to enlist scientists to aid their crackpot scheme. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory insisted in 1987 that a report put out by Senators J. Bennett Johnston and William Proxmire "devastated" the claims that missile defense is technologically feasible. Hit-to-kill technology in particular was nothing but a "joke."

Senator Johnston (D-La.) pronounced that building a missile defense would bring national "bankruptcy." Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) argued that "simply getting the Strategic Defense Initiative system into place could cost about as much as we spend each year for defense and possibly as much as what we now spend yearly for all of the operations of the federal government. "Senator Al Gore agreed that missile defense was both infeasible and financially ruinous. He warned that "a group of extremely hard-line conservatives" [are there any other kind?] imagined that the Strategic Defense Initiative could force the Soviet Union into an "accelerated arms race, and, the conservatives hope, pressure the Soviets economically to induce a radical change in their system. But their strategy is not viable.

The Soviets have always found the rubles to match our military escalation. We're the ones with Gramm -Rudman [budget caps]. To assume they're the ones who would buckle is madnesss."

Such arguments echoed back and forth between missile defense opponents and the media. When ABC "Nightline" host Ted Koppel was asked if the country is spending too much money on defense, he replied, "Well, I think that what is being proposed for expenditures on Star Wars, for example, is absolute nonsense." New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis used Reagan's unwavering support for missile defense to illustrate the President's disconnect from reality. "He asserts, as truth, visions that have nothing to do with the facts and moves the whole framework of debate to his premises." But who was really out of touch?

After the demise of the Soviet Union, former officials of the USSR conceded that Reagan's missile defense proposals had indeed contributed to the Soviet capitulation. Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that any attempt to match U.S. expenditures on missile defense would prove ruinous to his economically depressed homeland. As former Soviet foreign minister Alexandr Bessmertnykh told a 1993 Princeton University conference, the missile defense proposals first put forth by Ronald Reagan "made us realize we were in a very dangerous spot."

So the Russian leadership "buckled," discarding communism, their war footing, and the entire Cold War in exactly the way that Al Gore and company had deemed absurd. What Gore called the "madness" of missile defense led instead to a historic disarmament and new era of peace.

These experiences in the SDI debate that launched America's current missile defense programs seem to have been lost on many of the journalists now deriding missile defense. In a 1999 column for instance, former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser ignored and distorted the SDI history to argue

against further anti-missile research and development. "The people who set to work on what soon became known as Star Wars," she confidently asserted, "did not really believe it would render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. Indeed, many among Reagan's followers hoped instead that it would spur the Soviets to build more nuclear weapons and spend themselves to death. But it didn't. "Where did Overholser get such revisionist spin? Directly from left-leaning missile defense opponents like the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose spokesman, Richard Garwin, she quotes without properly identifying his political position.

Many of today's public critics of missile defense argue more from personal bluster than from evidence. Ultra-liberal columnist Molly Ivins, for instance, recently told readers that missile defense proponents are "trying to build a bullet that will hit another bullet. We've been working on this since 1983 and still don't have anything that works."

We don't? For nearly two decades now, opponents like Ivins have been trying to deflate the practicality of missile defense by conjuring up this seemingly impossible image of "hitting a bullet with a bullet." So Ivins and her compatriots may be interested to learn that several hit-to-kill systems (hitting a missile with another missile) are already up and operating today. They include the American PAC-3 Patriot missile.

As for the crocodile tears about pouring money into government programs that don't work, where were the hard-nosed, results-oriented Ivins and Bumpers and Jesse Jackson when it came to, say, assessing federal anti-poverty programs? Too bad Jackson and company refuse to adapt the same adage for missile defense that they apply to so many pie-in-the-sky programs: Keep hope alive.

Alas, convincing Jackson and his ilk to consider missile defense with any measure of optimism, patriotic idealism, or even seriousness seems to be a nearly impossible dream. They claim it's "unrealistic." But so is mindless fatalism.

JWR contributor Evan Gahr is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. To comment click here.


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© 2001, Evan Gahr. Adapted from the current issue of The American Enterprise magazine