The Magazine

Bush's Missile Defense Triumph

Jun 26, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 39 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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Much to his credit, George W. Bush has made national missile defense the central plank in his foreign policy platform. This may or may not prove to be good for Bush's electoral prospects (though we suspect it will help him). But there is no question that Bush has done the nation a real service by sparking a serious national debate on missile defense.

It is a debate Vice President Al Gore did not want to have, and for good reason. The Clinton administration never wanted to build a national missile defense of any kind. From the day they took office, the president, the vice president, and their top advisers set about cutting funds for the most promising missile defense programs they inherited from the Reagan and Bush years, killing some altogether. They negotiated bad agreements with Moscow on theater missile defense systems, which had the effect of further limiting American capabilities. They downplayed the threat that states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq could develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States. And why? Because Clinton and Gore were, and are, devoted apostles of the arms control faith. To them, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was sacrosanct.

Then along came the 1998 report of a bipartisan commission headed by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which demonstrated convincingly to anyone with an open mind that the danger posed by North Korea, Iran, and others was more immediate than the Clinton administration had wanted to admit. This report, quickly followed by North Korean and Iranian missile tests, bolstered the case of congressional Republicans and forced the Clinton administration to move ahead with some kind of missile defense system, if only to protect its own political flanks and to give Gore some cover in the 2000 campaign.

But we all know how people carry out tasks when they are forced to do so against their will. They carry them out badly. The Clinton administration was dragged kicking and screaming to national missile defense, and it shows.

Clinton officials went about everything backwards. Instead of trying to devise the best possible missile defense system to meet the emerging threat, the administration tried to devise the system that would require the least possible revision to the ABM treaty. Instead of working hard to explain to the Russians how they might share in the benefits of a robust missile defense system, the administration put forth a proposal designed to be the least troubling to the Russian government. Instead of prompting the administration to develop a plan for helping defend American allies as well as this country, reverence for the ABM treaty led to a constricted effort that would leave our friends abroad unprotected and alarmed.

Clinton is the master triangulator, but on this vital matter of national security his triangulation has been a disaster. Clinton and Gore wanted to be able to boast that they had both built a missile defense and saved the ABM treaty. But that is a logical contradiction, and even this Houdini of a president hasn't been able to pull it off. As a result of Clinton and Gore's fancy footwork, the nation runs the risk of getting a bad missile defense system and angry allies.

There is a good chance no one would have known quite how shoddy, duplicitous, and fundamentally inadequate was the Clinton-Gore approach had Bush not set forth his own, far more coherent position on missile defense. Bush's plan calls for a comprehensive and robust missile defense system. It would protect American allies as well as American territory. It would employ the most promising technologies, regardless of whether they comply with the antiquated ABM treaty. Indeed, Bush declares that he will not allow U.S. security to be held hostage to a treaty so outdated that even its author, Henry Kissinger, believes it should now be scrapped. Bush has also offered to share missile defense technologies with the Russians, something first proposed by Ronald Reagan and already in the works during his father's administration.

Ever since Bush laid out his proposal, President Clinton has been scrambling to keep up. During his recent trip to Europe, Clinton was forced to agree with Bush that the allies should be protected. He was forced to accept the idea that some technology might be shared with the Russians. And ever since Bush offered his own proposal, just about every expert on missile defense has agreed that, whatever else may be true, Clinton's planned deployment is probably the least desirable.