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Jewish World Review July 18, 2000 /15 Tamuz, 5760

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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Shooting down the anti-missile defence myths

America's allies could gain from an initiative that shows strong global leadership rather than isolationism -- WITHIN DAYS of the failure of America's third test of its land-based missile defence system, the sceptics were already pushing to abandon the programme. In the US, Democrats in Congress rushed to assert that the July 8 booster failure showed the project did not make sense. In Moscow, the military aired "undisguised sarcasm" about the embarrassing miss by the $100m interceptor missile.

But the test actually proved little about the ultimate workability of the missile defence system. What failed over the Pacific was not a pioneering piece of new technology, but a standard booster rocket. In other words, this was like a flat tyre on a $100,000 sports car. Despite their clamour, the enemies of missile defence cannot know that the technology will never succeed.

From the launch pad explosion of the Vanguard rocket in 1957 onward, the press labelled the satellite Kaputnik and Dudnik, after Russia's Sputnik. US defence and space development has suffered repeated failures, but has eventually powered through. The cultural aspects of this historical pattern are depicted in October Sky, the recent film about unrelentingly optimistic American teenagers and Sputnik.

The more fundamental fear here is of success. Dislike is too weak a word for the attitude of foreign capitals toward National Missile Defence (NMD). They revile the notion to the point that it has become the most divisive issue among the globe's great powers. At its worst, opponents say, US missile defence would represent a return to old-fashioned isolationism. And an isolationist America will provoke the Chinese and Russians, and destroy the entire Western defence arrangement.

For their part, many Americans have a hard time understanding why NMD generates such antagonism. The US perceives itself as the likely target of missile attacks by so-called rogue states, and views the space shield as necessary protection. Nor is the programme a form of destructive isolationism, argues John Bolton, a former assistant secretary of state, in a new Chatham House paper. Instead, missile defence represents a version of the muscular foreign policy practised by Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of "speak softly and carry a big stick", missile defence is speak softly and carry a big pillow, says Mr Bolton. Unilateralism here is not isolationism but leadership - leadership that is in the interests of other powers. Indeed, other versions of missile defence, including a sea-based weapons system, could shield Taiwan and Japan - even Europe.

Given the significance of the divide, it is worth considering the sceptics' arguments in turn.

Doesn't the US exaggerate the danger from rogue states? Many European nations feel that diplomacy is the best way to reform nasty regimes. Last week, for example, Gerhard Schroder of Germany played host to Mohammed Khatami, the Iranian president, saying it was time for a "fresh start" between Berlin and Tehran.

Wrong, say missile defence advocates: warm and fuzzy alone does not deter rogues. German invitations have not stopped Tehran from toiling away at an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a several hundred kilogramme payload to parts of the US this decade, according to a 1999 CIA report. Only a few hours after the German visit, Iran bragged that it had successfully test fired its upgraded Shahab missile, which is capable of striking Israel. Nor have US efforts to mellow North Korea ended the latter's work on the Taopodong-2 missile, which may be able to hit Alaska. If you want to stop people from doing something, you should create the impression that it is futile, says Richard Perle, a Bush campaign adviser.

Isn't missile defence so expensive that it will cause the US to neglect its European partners? This question puts the matter backwards, say the proponents. An America without a missile defence is a preoccupied America. The NMD programme is estimated to cost $30bn, which is hardly a budget breaker, and the US can well afford wider plans. Missile defence would free America to concentrate on supplying partners with intelligence and lift capability, forms of support Europeans deem crucial.

What about the jeopardising of commitments like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Nato? NMD would indeed disturb the 1972 ABM Treaty. The US will probably need to amend or abrogate the treaty to establish a land-based missile defence system. But the treaty permits both steps. And at a time when foreign threats make NMD crucial, the treaty may not even be worth keeping.

Scary as it may be, the same logic holds when it comes to changing Nato. Security arrangements are only worth preserving as long as they protect their partners' vital interests. The US enthusiasm for missile defence tells us we have arrived at a moment when one party - America - feels its interests cannot be protected by merely buttressing an edifice designed to defend western Europe from assault by a communist force that no longer exists. Missile defence may prove a catalyst to a more appropriate security arrangement.

It may also be that the fealty of Europeans or Russians to the status quo is more about sustaining self-esteem than about diverting military attack. Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, has accused the US of acting like a hyperpuissance - something more arrogant than a superpower. This week Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, trumpeted that Russia "was, is, and will always be, a superpower". Perpetuating Russia's vision of itself may be important to Russia, but should not be a central goal of US policy.

Hence the opportunity of NMD. In pioneering the system, the US will attract the criticisms it has always done. But when missile defence is made to work, it will have an enduring value both for America, and its unhappy allies.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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