A One-Track Mind

Bush administration's pursuit of missile defense jeopardizes other priorities

On taking over in January, the administration of President George W. Bush carefully cultivated an image of maturity and experience in foreign affairs, personified by the respected Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. In the ensuing months, however, that image has been belied by the administration’s almost obsessive pursuit of a nuclear missile defense system. All other foreign policy concerns have been subordinated to this single goal, without regard for its steep diplomatic and economic costs. America’s national security rests on a myriad of supports—including the confidence of our allies and the trust of other nations—and cannot be secured solely by an extravagant and unworkable missile shield.

Bush’s dogged persistence already threatens to weaken one such support—an initiative designed to reduce the amount of Russian weapons-grade plutonium that is inadequately guarded and that could be obtained by terrorists or rogue states. The initiative, started by the Clinton administration, would have destroyed a large number of weapons-grade plutonium stores—enough to make 8,000 nuclear bombs—by either converting the material to fuel for power plants or inactivating it by mixing it with radioactive waste. The Bush administration is considering canceling the program because of its high price tag, an estimated $6 billion over two decades. But unlike the missile defense shield, which carries costs of up to $8 billion per year and is not yet functional, this program would take concrete steps to reduce the risk of a nuclear threat by reducing the world’s stockpile of easily obtainable plutonium. Terrorists who acquire this plutonium will be inventive enough to transport their bombs inside the United States through means less exotic than ballistic missiles. By canceling this program to better afford a missile shield, the Bush administration would perversely increase the danger of nuclear attack in order to defend against it.

The same tactic has been employed in Bush’s dealings with China. Last week, in a surprising turnabout, administration officials let slip that they would not oppose a Chinese buildup of their nuclear arsenal. Tacitly encouraging any nation to build more nuclear weapons represents a dramatic shift in foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear powers have sought to preserve peace by reducing the world’s nuclear weapon stockpiles. A Chinese buildup seems certain to encourage similar measures by other Asian states, raising the risk of a new arms race. This bizarre overhaul of 50 years of non-proliferation doctrine is designed to garner Chinese support for the missile shield, by ensuring that the nuclear missile defense will not in any way threaten China’s ability to attack the United States. It is one thing to aim at a theater missile defense that would be more limited but also more reliable; it is quite another to encourage potential rivals to build more missiles than even an extensive missile shield can stop. More recently, the administration has wisely backed away from such a policy in its public statements; whether it can be effective in dissuading China from such a buildup remains to be seen.

These shortsighted decisions are symptomatic of the administration’s neglect of diplomatic solutions in favor of unilateral ones. Officials responsible for primarily military affairs —Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice—wield undue influence over foreign policy negotiations that should rightly be conducted by the Department of State. Rice and Rumsfeld are also, coincidentally, the two most active supporters of a missile defense in the administration, while Powell, who holds a much more moderate view on missile defense, has faded to the background. When negotiations began with Russia over the possible implementation of the system and the abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Rice headed the delegation rather than Powell. In the most important dealings with foreign powers, the secretary of state has been repeatedly eclipsed by his own administration. Powell needs to raise his moderate voice and assert his place in forming Bush’s foreign policy.

The effects of Bush’s absolutist foreign policy, in which all goals are sacrificed to that of a missile shield, are already apparent. In a recent trip to Australia, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stressed the importance of the Australian-New Zealand United States Treaty (ANZUS), saying that allies should be willing to die for one another. Armitage’s rhetoric made many Australians nervous, particularly after the United States has threatened to abrogate its own treaty obligations to build the missile defense, and has led to calls in Australia for withdrawal from the ANZUS treaty. Bush’s willingness to break international commitments damages our national credibility, makes the United States appear untrustworthy and isolates us from our allies.

American leadership should not be compromised in pursuit of a technological pipe dream. Rather than protect the U.S. from attack, Bush’s blind insistence on a missile shield has instead done much to endanger our national security.