January 27, 1999

January 27, 1999 | Commentary on Missile Defense

Outdated Treaty Holds National Defense Hostage

Any serious post-Cold War defense strategy must include a way to protect the United States against missile attack. North Korea already possesses a missile that, with minor improvements, will be able to strike Alaska or Hawaii. Iran is developing a missile capable of reaching St. Paul, Minn. And according to a congressional commission chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, these missiles could be ready to fly with "little or no warning."

So why are we wary of the Clinton administration's new proposal to build a missile defense system? Because it's little more than an elaborate scheme to bind the United States even more closely to a treaty that-as the administration interprets it-bars us from building an effective missile defense.

Defense Secretary William Cohen recently outlined the administration's plan, which includes spending an extra $6.6 billion between now and 2005 to field a missile defense system. The good news is that Cohen finally acknowledged the threat to the United States from missile attack-something the administration has thus far refused to do. Indeed, President Clinton has repeatedly denied U.S. vulnerability to enemy missiles.

Cohen also said he would support a missile defense system even if it violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The ABM treaty forbade either nation from developing a national missile defense on the theory-aptly named MAD, for Mutually Assured Destruction-that if neither side could protect itself, neither would dare strike first. Administration officials have long defended the treaty as "a cornerstone of our security," as National Security Adviser Sandy Berger recently put it.

Does the administration's apparent change of heart mean advocates of missile defense have won?

Yes and no. Make no mistake-wringing a concession from this administration that a clear and present danger from ballistic missiles even exists is a step forward. The same holds true for Cohen's admission that the ABM treaty is a significant barrier to national defense. But several troubling facts undermine the administration's contention that it's truly committed to shielding the American people from missile attacks.

First, the administration is sending mixed signals. On the same day Cohen outlined the administration's plan, President Clinton assured Boris Yeltsin in a letter that no decision to deploy missile defenses had been made-the actual decision is deferred until 2000. In fact, America is still committed to the ABM treaty, Clinton wrote.

Second, even if the administration does decide to deploy a missile defense, the date has been pushed back. Under the previous policy, deployment was slated to occur as early as 2003. The administration is now saying it will not occur until 2005. But if the threat from missile attack is worse than previously thought, shouldn't deployment be accelerated rather than delayed?

Third, the administration continues to act as if the ABM treaty still binds us. But our treaty partner, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist in 1991. Neither Russia alone nor a combination of the newly independent states that emerged after the Soviet Union collapsed is capable of honoring the treaty. The administration continues to defy logic by honoring the treaty unilaterally, turning this so-called "cornerstone" into a self-imposed straitjacket.

Fourth, the Clinton administration is even now negotiating with Russia to "amend" the ABM treaty. Cohen said these negotiations are designed to ease the treaty's restrictions. In reality, they are an attempt to resuscitate the treaty through diplomatic sleight-of-hand. The administration hopes that by holding negotiations, it will establish a diplomatic record that implies the treaty remains in force.

All this is meant to appease Russia, which cannot afford to build a missile defense of its own and doesn't like the idea of our having one either. But this focus on Russia ignores the fact that other nations pose a far more serious threat to the United States. Why do we need Russia's permission to protect ourselves from missiles launched by North Korea?

The American people deserve better. They deserve the best missile protection money can buy, not a half-hearted effort more concerned with preserving an outdated treaty than with protecting American lives.

Kim R. Holmes is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Baker Spring is a senior defense policy analyst for the Center.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy