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Jewish World Review May 14, 2001/ 21 Iyar, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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Dense on Missile Defense -- THE Democratic Party opposes change in the status quo -- from school choice to private Social Security accounts -- lest it disturb either a core liberal constituency (such as teachers) or a past liberal achievement (such as Social Security). This has been correctly called "reactionary liberalism." And nowhere has this refusal to leave the warm and cozy past been more starkly demonstrated than in the Democrats' knee-jerk response to President Bush's proposal on missile defense.

"The president," said House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, "is jeopardizing an arms control framework that has served this nation and the world well for decades."

Decades? The '70s and '80s, the heyday of arms control, were a time of hair-trigger nuclear tension. We went to DEFCON III in October 1973, just a year after the signing of SALT I and the ABM Treaty, the alleged cornerstones of strategic stability.

In the '90s, conversely, the nuclear terror dissipated. Not because of any change in the arms control regimen -- arms control was an utter irrelevancy -- but because of a fundamental change in leadership and ideology in Moscow.

Some liberals, like my colleague Michael Kinsley, are too bright to oppose missile defense, like Gephardt, out of reverence for parchment treaties. It is not treaties, they argue, but the simple existential reality born of nuclear weapons -- mutually assured destruction (MAD) -- that makes missile defense a bad idea. We shouldn't build one, they say, because Russia will then fear that it will lose the ability to retaliate against an American first strike -- thus Russia would be more likely to initiate a nuclear war under the theory of "use 'em or lose 'em."

Let's get this straight: They argue that we should not build a missile defense . . . because it risks an out-of-the-blue Russian first strike on the United States. It would be the most massive, genocidal and unprovoked act of war in the history of the human race.

If this seems wacky to you, it is. Even when this first-strike MAD logic was in currency 20 years ago, it was not entirely plausible. It was, however, minimally plausible because the Soviet Union defined itself as our mortal enemy in an existential death struggle with the West, because it had massive armies and navies confronting ours throughout the world, because we had flash points of conflict in important places -- Cuba, Berlin, Korea -- where a crisis could conceivably precipitate Armageddon.

Yet even then -- with the tension so great, the hair-trigger so tight, the stakes so high -- the notion of a first strike was still almost inconceivable. But today? The Russians are neither a superpower nor an existential enemy. What are the stakes today? The Caspian pipeline? An insufficiency of American loans? Our worst dispute in the past 10 years was over the Pristina airport. Armageddon over that?

After so implausibly deploying ABM and MAD, opponents of missile defense have one last resort: the nuclear suitcase. What's the point of a missile defense, they say, if the bad guys can always slip in a nuke in the hands of a terrorist?

By that logic, we should dismantle our continental antiaircraft defenses because an enemy can always put a bomb in a suitcase rather than on a plane. By that logic, the Navy should strip the fleet of antiaircraft and antimissile defenses because the enemy -- as demonstrated in Yemen against the USS Cole -- can always sneak in with a little harbor boat and blow you up anyway.

The argument is that if you can't stop 100 percent of threats, then you might as well leave yourself 100 percent defenseless. What nonsense.

Yes, an enemy might slip in a suitcase. But it's not easy. It requires a conspiracy. It requires coordination, timing. It requires many people acting in concert over a long period of time. It risks penetration and error and disruption and defection.

Compare that to a dictator sitting by a console in his capital with a button that will reliably, immediately and incontestably incinerate a half-dozen American cities. There is a huge order of magnitude difference between that threat and the smuggled suitcase.

The left has not had a new idea on nuclear weapons in 20 years. And that idea, the "freeze," was the worst idea of a generation. Why, even the European leaders of today, Blair in Britain and Schroeder in Germany, admit that their parties' opposition to the European deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles was a mistake.

The Democrats here, so enthusiastic for the freeze back then, are unrepentant. They are back for Round 2 -- sporting Cold War arguments so comically anachronistic you have to wonder whether they'll ever offer a serious argument on nuclear weapons.

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