October 29, 1997

October 29, 1997 | Commentary on Missile Defense

ED102997a: Protecting Some of America

Remember when the media and political elites laughed at Ronald Reagan for suggesting America ought to protect itself against missile attack?

As it turns out, technological advances in the ensuing years have made Reagan's vision both technically feasible and relatively cheap to build. One way to do it would be to upgrade a system the U.S. Navy uses to defend battle areas from incoming missiles. This system could be expanded to defend the nation if Washington would decide, after all these years, to go ahead and do it. Until then, we remain defenseless against the worst of all possibilities.

The United States could begin deploying such a system right now, if the president wanted to. Congress would support him. Only he doesn't want to.

Think about that. The United States could build a system that ultimately would protect all of America from a nuclear or biochemical holocaust that could leave millions dead and millions more horribly maimed-and the president doesn't want to do it.

Of course, President Clinton's political instincts make him well aware of how it would look if he just said, "No, I'm not going to defend America against missile attack." So he has proposed his own missile-defense system.

The trouble is: His system won't defend all of America. Or even most of it. The president's plan for missile defenses wouldn't protect Hawaii, for example. It also would leave Alaskans to fend for themselves (prompting the Alaskan legislature to register a formal protest with the White House). To tell the truth, the president's system would leave Californians, Floridians, Texans and New Yorkers without so much as a bottle rocket to shoot down incoming missiles. In fact, what the president proposes probably would protect only a few states in the northern Midwest.

How can the president get away with proposing a missile-defense system nobody wants? Easy: invoke the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

You see, back in 1972, the United States signed a treaty with the Soviet Union promising we wouldn't build serious missile defenses. At that time, neither superpower had figured out how to protect itself from incoming missiles. But both could see that it might be possible someday. Rather than wait with their fingers on the nuclear trigger until then, each superpower signed a treaty leaving itself vulnerable to the nukes of the other, the idea being that neither side would have the guts to shoot. This strategy-which became our national policy-was aptly named MAD, for "mutually assured destruction." Any ignoramus can figure out that neither side wanted to stay in this perpetually vulnerable state forever.

A little more than a decade later Ronald Reagan-a year after my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation published a book showing it was possible-announced the beginning of a bold program to build a shield against incoming missiles. But instead of welcoming this new development, the Washington establishment derisively dubbed Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative "Star Wars." The United States never withdrew from the ABM treaty, like it should have, and U.S. missile defenses were never built.

One would think that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States no longer would be bound by the ABM treaty, and could protect itself from missile attack. But no. Today, the United States is still abiding by the treaty. President Clinton's excuse for not building missile defenses that protect the entire nation is that the ABM treaty-a treaty with a nation that no longer exists!-won't permit us to do so.

Meanwhile, weapons proliferation specialists just told a Senate subcommittee that the materials and technology for building ballistic missiles has never been more accessible to other nations (through the Internet), that U.S. intelligence has a poor track record of detecting when nations have developed missile-launching capability, and that China is currently the biggest buyer of materials needed to threaten the United States with missiles.

I guess we all better move to North Dakota.

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Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office