Beware the Clinton Trap on Missile Defense

Report Defense

Beware the Clinton Trap on Missile Defense

December 14, 1998 6 min read

Authors: Kim Holmes and Thomas Moore

After years of delay, it appears that President Bill Clinton may announce a decision to deploy a limited national missile defense, perhaps in his State of the Union message in January. Many supporters of missile defense will be tempted to view this as a victory. Their reason: Any defense of the American people from long-range missiles, however limited, is better than the current state of total vulnerability. They should be careful not to celebrate prematurely, however. All indications are that the national missile defense system envisioned by the Clinton Administration will be of doubtful effectiveness. Worse, it probably will preserve the basic framework of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which leaves Americans vulnerable to missile attack. In fact, the Administration's missile defense plan could prove to be a political trap that allows the President to co-opt a key policy of his opponents while avoiding any truly meaningful action.


Russia's State Duma soon may approve the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II). As a condition of approval, the Duma probably will insist that the United States continue to observe the ABM Treaty. This is a bedrock policy of the Clinton Administration as well. But the former partner of the United States in that treaty, the Soviet Union, is no more; and there is no clear successor that can carry out its terms as ratified. In other words, under international law, the ABM Treaty is dead.

To solve this legal problem, the Clinton Administration entered into a new ABM agreement in September 1997 in New York. This new treaty must receive Senate consent before ratification under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. On September 25, 1998, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and the top Republican leaders of the Senate wrote President Clinton to criticize strongly his stance on the ABM Treaty and to insist that the New York agreement be submitted for the Senate's advice and consent. The Senate is not likely to approve the New York ABM agreement, and the White House knows it. If the Duma acts as expected, however, the White House can link Senate approval of the New York ABM agreement with the fate of START II. Any Senator voting against the New York treaty could be accused of "killing START II" or "undermining arms control." And if the President has announced a national missile defense, however ineffective it might be, it would deflect the criticism that he is leaving America vulnerable to a severe and growing threat.

This is a brilliant political strategy, but it would be dangerous to U.S. security. America would be left devoid of any meaningful defense as the price for Russian arms reduction.


If President Clinton adopts this strategy toward missile defense, the critical question will be his Administration's attitude and policy on the ABM Treaty. The President is expected to propose a two-site deployment plan, with one site in North Dakota and the other in Alaska, claiming that this can be accomplished within the framework of the ABM Treaty. It cannot. Most experts agree that the deployment of even two sites would require renegotiating the treaty to add amendments. The President may be all too happy, however, to let missile defense proponents argue the legal point as he claims credit for nationwide defense in principle. Whether the ABM Treaty is changed marginally or is not changed at all, the Administration's political purpose of keeping the treaty will not change. What would be truly unacceptable to the Administration is a concession that the ABM Treaty is binding no longer and that it has become an obstacle to a truly robust defense of the American mainland, which would require considerably more than two ground-based sites.

The Clinton Administration's strategy on a missile defense system must be understood against the backdrop of Russian politics and the Russian government's position on START II and the ABM Treaty. If the Duma approves START II with the condition that the United States continue adherence to the ABM Treaty, the White House is likely to argue that a Senate vote against the New York agreements on the ABM Treaty will be tantamount to killing arms control with the Russians. Even though START II and the ABM Treaty are not linked legally, the Clinton Administration and many in the Duma could be expected to link them politically in the Senate debate on ratification of both the New York agreements and Russian agreement of START II.

As part of this debate, the Clinton Administration could argue that its modest deployment plan may be acceptable to Russia--and therefore would not kill Russian compliance with START II--because it accepts the need to continue the ABM Treaty. This strategy may or may not work; Russia can be expected to object to any deployment plan, even one consisting of only two ground-based sites. But a Russian objection to a two-site plan actually could help the Administration's political campaign to save the ABM Treaty. The reason: A Russian fuss over the Administration's plan could be used as political cover to gain approval in the Senate for the New York agreement to establish Russia and other former Soviet republics as partners with the United States in a new ABM Treaty. In the end, the Russian government might agree to a modest modification of the ABM Treaty to allow two missile defense sites--which it knows would be inadequate--as the price for gaining Senate approval of the New York agreements. Even if the Russians do not agree, however, the Administration still could hide behind Russian ire, claiming that its deployment plans must be serious if they are producing so much objection from the Russians. Either way, the purpose of the Administration's strategy is the same: saving the ABM Treaty.

It is true that the ultimate purpose of this strategy would be to preserve the essential structure of Cold War arms-control policy, of which the ABM Treaty is the centerpiece. And it is true as well that a minor rhetorical concession on the need for missile defense could be a calculated tactic to divide missile defense proponents between those who want to claim this as a "victory" and those who insist on the "real thing" on missile defense.


The fact remains, however, that if President Clinton indeed announces a nationwide, two-site missile defense plan, he is doing so because he no longer can ignore the reality of the growing missile threat. This would represent a critically important concession. It would mean that the President and his supporters have been wrong in downplaying the missile threat and delaying the decision to deploy defenses against it. It also would mean that once the President has conceded the point for the need for a nationwide defense, the debate then should become how to make it the most effective defense possible. Once the President concedes that the United States needs missile defense, more defense always will be better than less. After all, if the threat is real, no rational person would argue that the government should intentionally limit the effectiveness of the defense against it.

The Clinton Administration may try to dispute this very point, but it is a fatally weak argument. No President will be able to contend that the missile threat is real and growing--the point that must be conceded if a nationwide missile defense system is needed--but that America must settle for a self-imposed weak defense. In the long run, it will not be politically tenable to contend that arms control with a former Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, must prevent the United States from deploying the most effective missile defenses possible against growing threats from Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. If the threat is real, the defense against it must be the most effective system possible.

No matter how the Administration may try to spin the issue, the choice remains the same as it always has been: Shall the United States perpetuate the ABM Treaty, or shall Americans be defended against the world's deadliest weapons? The President is fond of claiming that history is on his side. In this case, history is on the side of defense.

-- Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President, and Thomas Moore is former Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research

Thomas Moore

McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy