Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2001 / 11 Teves, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Naked to our enemies: A treaty is not a defense

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- IT'S been decades since Ronald Reagan urged this country to begin building an anti-missile defense -- and was met by ridicule. Star Wars, the critics called his idea, and they didn't mean the sci-fi tag as a compliment. They seemed impervious to how often yesterday's science fiction has become today's reality.

But year after year, the case for such a defense became stronger as one rogue state after another acquired missiles -- and sought the nuclear weaponry to go with them. Iraq, Iran, North Korea ... their nuclear ambitions are scarcely secret.

The danger has grown so clear and ever more present that the Bush administration now has given notice to Russia that the United States is exercising its right to withdraw from the ABM treaty, which bars either country from building an anti-ballistic missile defense.

That treaty was a product of the Cold War's nuclear strategizing. A defense against nuclear weapons, the theory went, would encourage its possessor to launch a first strike, confident it could ward off any retaliation. But that theory has become about as relevant as the Cold War itself, since the most likely source of a nuclear attack now comes from the kind of mad regimes not likely to be deterred by the threat of being destroyed in turn. See the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Some things don't change. Opponents of an American defense against ballistic missiles still have no better argument than ridicule. The most revealing comment, if unintentionally so, came from a denizen of a think tank called the Center for International Policy. One of its Great Thinkers put it this way: "It's difficult to conceive of a country like North Korea sending a missile against the U.S., even if it could, which it can't. Every missile sent to the United States has a return address on it, and their country would be wiped out, and they know that.''

But before Sept. 11, how easy was it to conceive that a group of fanatics would take over four airliners and send three of them crashing into the World Trade Center's towers and another into the Pentagon?

The toll, according to the last figure we saw, was 3,245 dead. Which is more than the death toll at Pearl Harbor. Think of the devastation, if you can bear it, if the weapons used Sept. 11 hadn't been airliners full of innocent passengers and jet fuel but nuclear missiles.

Particularly striking was the analyst's airy dismissal of the possibility that a regime like North Korea's could acquire nuclear missiles, "which it can't.'' Right. No more than those primitive Japanese could launch a well-coordinated attack halfway across an ocean on Dec. 7, 1941 -- a surprise attack that would take out most of America's Pacific fleet. Will we never learn?

Yes, as the analyst noted, this country could wipe out any foreign power that launched such an attack. But when? After how many American cities became radioactive ruins -- one, two, three? San Francisco, New York, Washington?

The assurance that only an irrational enemy would open nuclear hostilities isn't very assuring in a world full of irrational regimes like North Korea's. And does anybody think Saddam Hussein a model of rational thought? Osama bin Laden isn't the only nutcase out there with sufficient resources and enough true believers to make him dangerous.

An anti-ballistic missile system doesn't have to be completely missile-proof in order to be useful. Just knowing that it's even partially effective could prove deterrent enough for rogue states with only a few nuclear warheads to expend.

Recent successes indicate that this country could build such a defense -- and make the world a safer place not only for this country but for others threatened by rogue regimes, including our European allies and now semi-ally, Russia.

Other powers may have their qualms about this country's opting out of the treaty banning a defense against ballistic missiles -- but their objections have grown muted since Sept. 11. In part because that attack revealed the whole world's vulnerability to some mad attack, and the need to develop a joint defense. And in part because, now that the Cold War is history, the Russians may recognize that the United States has no aggressive designs on their country. These days they're becoming part of the NATO alliance, step by gradual step.

The reassertion of American demonstrations in the Islamic world seem to have dried up. Even Yasser Arafat is seriously pretending to be against terror. Conclusion: Victory speaks louder than any words, and earns respect.

As the rest of the world realizes that this country is determined to build a defense against ballistic missiles, both allies and adversaries will come to see the old ABM treaty as the holdover from the Cold War it is. And a dangerous holdover at that, for it puts a premium on developing nuclear weapons while barring an effective defense against them.

Without a credible American deterrent, the number of rogue states experimenting with weapons of mass destruction is likely to grow. It's been three years now since the Rumsfeld Commission warned that at least three countries -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea - "would be able to inflict major destruction on the United States within about five years.'' Time grows short.

And yet, two decades after Ronald Reagan first unveiled his vision of a world no longer prey to nuclear weapons, this country's only response to the growing threat of a nuclear attack remains Robert McNamara's literally MAD doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction -- a concept right out of "Dr. Strangelove.''

MAD worked for decades against a rational adversary like the old Soviet Union, but it came perilously close to producing nuclear holocaust when only a semi-rational shoe-banger like Nikita Khrushchev came into control of the Soviets' considerable nuclear arsenal. He decided that Fidel Castro's Cuba was just the spot to plant some nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. Only as the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction became evident were both sides scared into reason.

But the specter of a nuclear Gvtterddmmerung might prove more of an incentive than a deterrent to types like Iraq's Saddam Hussein. With a single nuclear missile, he might fancy he could finally gain the world's respect, especially if he used it. Megalomania knows no limits. (Remember how eager Fidel Castro was to get his finger on the nuclear trigger during the Cuban Missile Crisis?)

As a politician, Ronald Reagan was more of a seer. Faced with the nuclear arms race, he came up with a happy ending worthy of a B-movie: In place of mutual destruction, the United States would offer the Soviets mutual protection. The whole idea struck blind, conventional wisdom as wacky, and it still does.

But why not move toward a world in which the attacking missiles, rather than the cities they target, would be destroyed? Instead, year after year, assuring this country's security has been treated as a secondary consideration. Our first priority has been to preserve a 30-year-old treaty that forbids defense. Those still thinking in Cold War terms treat the ABM treaty as a sacred relic -- when it is only a relic.

Sept. 11 was not just a disaster; it was a warning of worse things that could yet come. It's time to take the lead and make the world defensible. Before it's too late.

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