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Wrong Way on Missile Defense

Bush plan would bring heavy diplomatic and monetary costs, little safety in return

The Bush administration, which has made a national missile defense an almost obsessive focus of its foreign policy, seemed to score a coup of sorts last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin offered an anti-missile proposal. Putin's plan accepted the possibility of certain types of limited missile defenses. However, on close examnination, the proposal looks more like a mere barganing ploy vastly different from the system Bush would build. This gap between the president's designs and the systems our foreign allies and partners would support shows how much the U.S. stands to lose diplomatically if it continues to move towards a hasty and unworkable missile defense.

Putin's counter-proposal was motivated by Russia's wariness that a missile defense would render its aging nuclear stockpile obsolete. Putin's suggestion of a limited theater system to protect Europe from missile attacks by rogue nations would have been based on already-existing Russian technology and would have been compatible with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, an agreement that currently prohibits the deployment of large-scale missile defenses. However, Putin's offer would have dealt only with Europe, not the United States. As a result, it should not be seen as an acceptance of the principle of missile defense but rather as an effort to undermine European support for an American plan.

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The strength of the foreign opposition to missile defense should give the U.S. pause. Russia is currently the only nation that can substantially threaten the U.S., with China not far behind in its development of long-range nuclear missiles. Better diplomatic and trade ties with both nations will do more to keep the U.S. safe by reducing nuclear proliferation, encouraging political liberalization and decreasing arsenals of long-range missiles.

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By heedlessly marching forward with a missile defense, the Bush administration is in danger of sacrificing America's real diplomatic assets to an infeasible defense system. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war has been countered by the threat of overwhelming retaliation. This principle--as well as the nuclear arsenal that the U.S. retains to enforce it--remains the most effective deterrent to nuclear attack. In contrast, the tests of American anti-missile systems have so far yielded dismal results, with interceptors unable to tell the difference between missiles and simple decoys. No one knows whether it is technologically possible to intercept a significant missile attack.

And the costs of this science-fiction defense plan would be more than diplomatic. Bush called for the development of "effective missile defenses" in his budget speech Tuesday night, and administration officials have suggested that they have in mind a significant increase over the current $2.2 billion per year allotted to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Billions of dollars that could have gone to Social Security, education, debt reduction or even tax relief have already been spent on a missile defense system that may never work as its supporters claim.

The Bush administration must make tough decisions about the realistic needs that the U.S. has for protection from terrorists and rogue nations. If a terrorist group wanted to deliver a weapon of mass destruction to the U.S., it would most likely forgo missiles for less risky and more destructive methods. The danger of chemical or biological attack on major cities by terrorist groups is well documented; in 1995, a nerve gas attack on a Japanese subway left 12 commuters dead and could have threatened many more. Such attacks are warning signs that U.S. policy should concentrate less on the Cold War calculus of missiles and bombs and more on the threat of biological and chemical attacks on American cities.

In light of the failures that have plagued the missile-defense program and the new dangers posed by the reality that Russia is no longer an enemy or a superpower, Bush should scrap costly national missile defense plans for a more limited program--or, preferably, no program at all.

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