November 7, 2001 | Commentary on Missile Defense
We've had our terrorist attacks,
Halberstam says, and they didn't come via ballistic missile. So, he
concludes, there's no reason to construct an American Maginot Line
-- i.e., no need to defend against ballistic missiles.
There are several flaws with this line
For one, it assumes terrorists have a
one-page playbook and that all future attacks will look like those
of Sept. 11. The Anthrax crisis alone puts the lie to that.
It assumes we don't have to worry
about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Never mind that he's used
chemical weapons against his own people, attempted to assassinate
former President George H.W. Bush, and brazenly expelled U.N.
inspectors in an apparent effort to speed the development of
chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
It also assumes Saddam never will use
the missile program he's been developing, at tremendous cost and
despite international sanctions forbidding this and other
That's not all. Can Halberstam
guarantee that America will continue to have cordial relations with
Russia and China, both of which possess more than enough firepower
to destroy us? Can he assure us that Iran, which has a robust
missile program, never will strike at the country its leaders
routinely refer to as the Great Satan?
Is there no danger that North Korea
could use the long-range missile it is developing (one with a
possible range of 6,000 miles) against the United States? Or that
this perennially poor country will ever stoop to making quick cash
by selling missiles to terrorists? Or that Libya, Syria and other
state sponsors of terrorism will ever upgrade their own missile
stocks to threaten America's allies?
Even for a man such as Halberstam, who
must be quite capable of understanding and appreciating
probabilities, this makes for a lot of assuming. And if we've
learned nothing else since Sept. 11, it's that we need to become
far more humble regarding what we assume about others -- and far
more imaginative in what we do to protect ourselves.
For instance, we've long believed one
thing would deter ballistic missile strikes against the United
States -- that anyone who attacks us doesn't want to die. After
all, we would retaliate vigorously.
This assumption, of course, didn't
hold true on Sept. 11. The perpetrators willingly went down with
the planes, so they obviously didn't fear death.
Further, we assume virtually all of
those who hate us can't reach us with ballistic weapons. But who
can say what range a missile belonging to a terrorist-supporting
state will have in five or 10 years? And what if a well-endowed
terrorist network figured out a way to launch a missile from a
barge at sea just a few hundred miles off our shores? This would be
no less impossible to achieve than coordinating an attack by four
If a sea-based attack occurred, how
would we react? Even if we found the barge with its crew still
alive, what do we do to them that would deter others with similar
aims? And even if we knew the exact location of a launch from a
rogue state, killing millions of innocent people in that state
wouldn't bring back one dead American.
Before Sept. 11, no one had hijacked
an American plane for more than 10 years. If we can't put it past
terrorists to pull off those attacks, how can we reasonably ignore
the possibility that they could acquire ballistic missiles with
chemical, biological or even nuclear warheads?
And if that's the case, what, really,
is the argument against constructing missile defense as soon as
possible? We've proven it can work. Yes, we would have to withdraw
from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But if our national
security demands such a step, we must take it.
We can't assume weapons of mass
destruction -- principally missiles -- won't come our way in the
near future. In fact, we probably should assume they will. We can't
assume those who wish us harm aren't even now busily trying to
acquire and refine such missiles. We can't underestimate their
commitment, their financial wherewithal or their imagination.
Unlike Mr. Halberstam, whose contentions about missile defense rest on a tall stack of questionable guesses, we no longer can afford easy assumptions at all.
Kim 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.
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