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Jewish World Review July 19, 2001 / 28 Tamuz, 5761

Michael Kelly

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The 'Smart People' Were Wrong -- ON Friday, July 13, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the details of the Bush administration's plan to develop, through a series of ambitious tests, a comprehensive national missile defense system. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had presented these details in lengthy testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Almost all of what Wolfowitz revealed, however, was deemed not fit to print; most of the Times' report was taken up with presenting criticisms of the administration's plans.

The first and most prominently displayed criticism, from the Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, rested on the common assumption that the whole idea of missile defense is a joke. "This administration's plans for missile defense for fiscal year 2002 have been harder to zero in on than a target in a missile defense test," said Levin, getting off what, in Washington, passes for a nifty.

Meanwhile, on the Times' op-ed page, columnist Tom Friedman was weighing in with a critique that twinned the administration's decision to temporarily pull back some forces in the Middle East (in response to threats from Osama bin Laden) with its decision to proceed with building an Alaska base for the missile defense system "whether the technology works or not." Wrote Friedman: "Message: We will deploy weapons that don't work against an enemy that doesn't exist, and we will withdraw forces that do work against an enemy that does exist."

The next day, Saturday, July 14, at 11:09 p.m., a "kill vehicle" launched from a test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands intercepted and destroyed a dummy warhead that had been launched 4,800 miles away, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The impact took place 144 miles above the earth. At the moment of impact, the two projectiles were traveling at a combined speed of 4.5 miles per second -- 16,200 miles per hour.

Ever since Ronald Reagan proposed the development of a national missile defense system, the reflexive smart-people response has been the sort of shrugging dismissal typified in Levin's sound bite and Friedman's analysis just before the success of the Kwajalein test: The whole thing was "Star Wars," a silly, costly fantasy out of the mind of a B-movie actor. This response became so accepted as to relieve critics of the burden of actually knowing what they were talking about. A passing putdown delivered with a knowing air -- a sardonic smile, a little laugh about the idea of "a bullet hitting a bullet" -- well,that was more than sufficient.

This is no longer tenable. In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as "weapons that don't work." It does work. The system had worked once before, in a 1999 test. Two tests after that met with failure, for reasons now understood and addressed. Now, success a second time: The bullet, it has been twice demonstrated, can hit the bullet.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, who is in charge of the development program, played down the importance of Saturday's success. And it is true, as Kadish said, that this success was just a step.

But it was a vital step, vital as much for psychological reasons as technological. Objections to the missile defense program may remain. Chief among these is the worry that going forward will, as Wolfowitz agrees, certainly lead to conflict with the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Russians are already, predictably, threatening that this may cause a new missile race.

But these concerns fall far short of sufficiency to stop the program. After Saturday, it will go forward. And what if this most recent success is followed by another, and another, and another? At some point, Americans are going to grasp the idea that the smart people were wrong once again. It really is possible to live under an umbrella that shields us from the great threat that has hung over us for more than a half-century now. Free from this threat, the United States can, as the Bush administration proposes, unilaterally destroy a great many of its nuclear weapons. We may, at last, escape from life under the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Most people are going to find this idea rather naturally attractive.

No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable. And if it is attainable -- if it is possible, after all, to give our children the gift of a world free from the worst fear of the nuclear age -- then why in the world, most people will ask, should we not want to attain it?

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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