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Our say is missing in missile defense

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- It is time to be nostalgic for the good old days when there was nothing to fear but global thermonuclear war. That the prospect was so hideous was the beauty of it. We knew that no national leader could be so insane as to bring it on.

It meant also that the United States, the Soviet Union and their allies had to forgo conventional hostilities lest they escalate. Throughout the Cold War, they went to the brink only once -- the Cuban missile crisis -- and took the lessons to heart. More than half a century has passed without armed conflict among the strongest powers, perhaps the longest such peace in history. Hard as it was for some people and even two presidents to grasp, the concept of mutual assured destruction -- MAD for short -- may have saved millions if not billions of lives.

The great danger was that one side or the other might build and deploy so many more missiles that it could plausibly strike first and survive whatever retaliatory capacity might be left to the other. Each would be compelled to continue to build and deploy more and more, inherently increasing the risk of first use. The solution lay in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, President Nixon's great achievement, which meant that neither the United States nor the Soviet Unionwould be able to strike from behind a defensive shield.

The treaty went out of effect Thursday, insufficiently mourned, six months after it was repudiated by a new president, less wise than Nixon about such things, who is too gung-ho for missile defense to wait for an honest opinion as to whether it might actually work. That the Russians are permitting this -- only because they have no choice -- doesn't mean it's a safe thing to do. To the contrary, it may be the most reckless act by any national leader since Khruschev put Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Far from being a "relic of the Cold War," as George W. Bush glibly dismisses it, the ABM treaty was the insurance against a new arms race with some emerging power like China. More than one Western commentator has noted what they must be thinking in Beijing: Star Wars Lite would offer little protection against a still-mighty nuclear power such as Russia, but could be decisively effective in a showdown with a less advanced nuclear power like China. It makes credible to the Chinese a scenario in which the United States would go nuclear to defend Taiwan.

North Korea, one of the rogue states that make up Bush's pretext for missile defense, is unlikely ever to have a sizeable offensive arsenal. China, on the other hand, easily could and most probably would should it suspect malice behind a U.S. missile defense.

The Chinese are probably waiting to see whether Bush's missile defense testing will pose a realistic threat to them or become history's most expensive flop. Not one test has entailed combat conditions or dealt honestly with the problem of decoys. Does anyone believe that the Pentagon will be straightforward about all this? With so many careers (and post-career job opportunities) at stake?

Ominously, the Washington Post reported last week that the Pentagon has gone into coverup mode, exempting missile defense from the planning and reporting requirements usually furnished Congress. It has also stopped issuing detailed cost estimates and timetables and has announced plans to "restrict information about targets and decoys used in flight tests of the most advanced option . . ."

". . . Congress will have all it needs when times come for decisions," said the general who runs the show.

No doubt.

Even a successful missile defense does nothing about the possibility of some terrorist group or state smuggling a real nuclear bomb (not just a 'dirty" one) under the radar into New York, Washington or Miami. That is a clear and present danger on which $7-billion a year (next year's minimum missile defense budget) would be much better spent. But common sense lost the fight when the military-industrial complex maneuvered the Republicans into making missile defense a campaign issue and the Democrats surrendered sheepishly. To reread George Washington's farewell warning with respect to the "common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party" is to realize how thoroughly right he was.

Americans have been taught ever since that a treaty, once consented to by the Senate, has as much force as the Constitution itself. If that be so, a president should need the Senate's consent to withdraw from a treaty, as 31 members of Congress contend in a suit filed last week. Barry Goldwater made the same claim when President Carter unilaterally abrogated the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. The Supreme Court disagreed in a split decision whose plurality held that the issue was a "nonjudiciable political dispute" between two other branches."

That was as wrong then as it would be wrong now. The real dispute is between the government and the people, who have a sacred right to have their Constitution respected. There is not much chance that the plaintiffs will have better luck this time, but sensible people everywhere will be hoping that they do.

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