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"Star Wars" and the Senator

John Kerry's dovish record on missile defense.

12:00 AM, Aug 30, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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IT IS NO EXAGGERATION to say the future of national missile defense (NMD) hinges on November's presidential election. This past July, Boeing engineers loaded the first ground-based missile interceptor into a silo at Fort Greely, Alaska; and according to the Washington Post, "five more are due for installation by mid-October." President George W. Bush predicts the system will become operational before 2005. The next administration can either speed or slow this program, depending on how generously it funds NMD research and development. And the contrast between President Bush and Massachusetts senator John Kerry on NMD could hardly be starker.

Bush has cast himself as the heir to Ronald Reagan's legacy: the president who will make the Gipper's missile shield a reality. NMD was in many ways the centerpiece of his defense platform during the 2000 campaign, and he's made it a priority while in office. On August 17, Bush told Boeing employees in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, that the Alaska-based interceptor loaded in July marked "the beginning of a missile-defense system that was envisioned by Ronald Reagan."

Following the president's speech, Kerry adviser Rand Beers issued a statement deriding the administration's "near obsession" with NMD in the months prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. "Bush and his closest advisers were preoccupied with missile defense," he said, "and their misunderstanding about the threats we face continues to this day." According to Beers, Kerry feels an "effective" NMD is "crucial to our national security strategy," but he "also understands the importance of facing our most pressing national security threats while continuing to develop and deploy a national missile defense which we know will work."

Though Beers's statement was somewhat muddled, Kerry himself was unequivocal when responding to a "Council for a Livable World" survey of the Democratic primary field late last year. One of the questions asked: "Do you support or oppose the current plan to deploy a ground-based version of a national missile defense in Alaska and California by the fall of 2004? Please feel free to discuss your administration's plans for missile defense." Most of the candidates described their broader philosophy on NMD in several sentences. But Kerry offered just a one-word answer: "Oppose." In a major foreign policy address on June 3, he hedged a bit, vowing to "build missile defense, but not at the cost of other pressing priorities." He did, however, call NMD the "wrong priority" at this time, and he pledged to scale back funding in order to expand the active-duty Army by 40,000 troops.

THAT KERRY WOULD SLASH the NMD budget comes as no surprise. Indeed, over the past 20 years, he has been one of the Senate's most consistent opponents of missile-defense funding, testing, and implementation. His record speaks for itself.

During Kerry's successful 1984 Senate campaign, he vigorously courted nuclear freeze activists, who called for disarmament and opposed President Reagan's Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI). Kerry ran as a staunchly pro-freeze candidate. According to the Boston Globe, he even modified his original responses to a Freeze Voter '84 questionnaire in order to gain a perfect score (and thus the group's endorsement). Betsy Taylor, who headed Freeze Voter '84, later claimed the freeze issue had been "a key factor" in Kerry's victory.

As a freshman senator in 1985, Kerry emerged as a leading critic of SDI (dubbed "Star Wars" by its detractors). He sponsored an amendment to the 1986 authorization for SDI that halted funding at its 1985 level. Going ahead with Reagan's SDI program, he warned his colleagues, would violate "the single-most important arms-control treaty of our time," the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and set off a "new and unrestrained competition" with the Soviet Union. The Senate ultimately rejected Kerry's amendment in June 1985 by a vote of 78-21, along with three other amendments to trim SDI's budget. (Of the four, Kerry's had proposed the deepest cuts and was rejected by the widest margin.) A year later, Kerry introduced legislation to prohibit testing of the nuclear-powered X-ray lasers used in SDI. "The choice we really face," he said at the time, "is a choice of arms control or 'Star Wars,' but not necessarily both." The Senate defeated Kerry's proposed ban by a 61-33 vote in August 1986.