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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2000 / 18 Elul, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT'S BEEN almost a decade now since a secretary of defense named Dick Cheney was saying that this country needed to construct a defense against ballistic missiles. In the intervening time, the threat has grown, but America and the West remain wide open to attack.

Last week Bill Clinton decided something: He decided to put the decision off once again. In order to allay Russia's fears, he said. Doesn't he know that nothing may allay a paranoid's fears?

It's an old story. Deploying medium-range missiles in Europe was going to make the Russians go crazy, too. Instead, Ronald Reagan's decision to press ahead with Pershing and cruise missiles on European soil gave the West the strong hand it needed in arms negotiations. And the Soviets came to their senses. They backed off and got serious about arms control.

And when Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative, and offered to share it with the Soviets, he set the stage for the end of the arms race-and of the Soviet Union, too.

Now the country faces a different threat from a different and less predictable quarter: the kind of fanatical regimes that could put together a nuclear capability in secret and spring their own Pearl Harbor.

Two years ago, the Rumsfeld Commission warned that already three small countries -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- "would be able to inflict major destruction on the United States within about five years.'' But does anybody remember the Rumsfeld Commission? Some warnings may be remembered only after it is too late.

Winston Churchill was just a crotchety old Tory backbencher through most of the '30s, when he kept warning about the growing threat from Nazi Germany. Only until it was almost too late was he proclaimed a great and far-sighted leader.

By now the Clinton (and Gore) administration has wasted seven good years putting off the decision to deploy an anti-missile defense, and this country remains vulnerable. Another missile test in North Korea, Iraq or Iran is usually consigned to the back pages, unless of course you're reading a newspaper in Jerusalem. Israeli population centers have already been attacked by Iraqi missiles -- during the Gulf War of 1991.

Without a credible American deterrent, the number of rogue states experimenting with missiles is likely to grow. That the State Department no longer recognizes the existence of rogue states, which have been transformed into States of Concern in its diplomatese, scarcely assures. Changing the name of the threat doesn't make it any less a threat. Indeed, euphemisms may only disguise a growing danger until it is too late to guard against it.

The American president has not been entirely passive: In light of Iraq's continued rearmament, he's alerted a Patriot anti-missile battery for possible deployment to Israel. It's mainly a gesture this election year, since the Iraqis fired Scud after Scud at Israel's cities during the Gulf War despite the Patriots, which proved effective mainly for PR purposes.

Still, the Israelis are ahead of us. They have been promised an ineffective defense against enemy missiles, while this country has none at all.

After all these years, the West's only real response to the threat of nuclear attack remains Robert McNamara's literally MAD doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction -- an idea straight out of "Dr. Strangelove.'' It's a strategy that depends not on defense, but global obliteration.

MAD worked against a rational adversary like the old Soviet Union, but it came perilously close to producing a nuclear holocaust when a semi-rational shoe-banger like Nikita Khrushchev came into control of the Soviet arsenal. He decided that Cuba was just the spot to plant some nukes aimed at the United States. As the madness of mutual destruction became apparent, both sides were scared into reason and the Cuban missile crisis eased.

But the specter of a nuclear Valhalla might be more of an incentive than a deterrent when employed against crazies like Iraq's Saddam Hussein. With a single nuclear missile, he might fancy he could finally get respect, especially if he used it. (Remember how eager Fidel Castro was to get his finger on the nuclear trigger during the Cuban missile crisis? The smaller the dictator, the greater the megalomania.)

But with an effective missile defense in place -- a sea-based system rather than the demonstration project in Alaska that this administration has been fiddling with -- an attacking missile could be destroyed instead of whole cities.

Still, year after wasted year, assuring American security has been treated as secondary to soothing imaginary Russian fears.

Now, at another critical juncture, the decision has been made not to make a decision. And still more valuable time will be squandered. What this country's armed forces need, besides an anti-ballistic missile system, is a commander-in-chief.

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