December 20, 2001 | Commentary on Missile Defense
After all, they said, it's not as if we're about to deploy a
missile shield today. We have more testing to do. And here's
the president, pulling out of an agreement that arms-control
proponents say has kept the world safe for decades. He's "rolling
the diplomatic dice," The New York Times wrote. What's the
It's a fair question. And the answer boils down to this: He had
Indeed, our security needs demanded he take this step. Some
observers may hail the ABM Treaty as the "cornerstone of strategic
security," but the fact is that the treaty no longer addressed the
security risks facing America -- or the world -- in the new
The treaty, let's recall, enshrined the doctrine of "mutual
assured destruction" -- the notion that a policy of deliberate
vulnerability would reduce the number of missiles in the world. In
theory, if we agreed not to deploy a missile shield, our enemies
would stop building more missiles in an escalating attempt to
But it didn't work out that way. The number of strategic
warheads in the Soviet arsenal grew from about 2,000 in 1972 -- the
year we signed the ABM Treaty -- to 12,000 in 1990. The United
States, meanwhile, was swelling its own arsenal. Far from
preventing an arms race, the ABM Treaty appears to have caused
And -- in a point critical to understanding why the president
had to jettison the treaty sooner rather than later -- this missile
buildup hasn't been confined to the United States and the Soviet
Union, the only nations to sign the treaty.
China, for example, has had a long-range missile program in
place since the mid-1970s, and it has been modernizing and
expanding its ICBM force since the early 1990s. It has no fewer
than four programs to develop missiles capable of striking U.S.
North Korea's been busy as well. Its missile-development program
actually poses the most urgent threat to the United States.
Communist government officials in Pyongyang have five active
ballistic missile programs in place, including the Taepo-Dong 2,
which a congressionally appointed commission has warned could reach
cities and military bases in Alaska and Hawaii. A "lightweight
variation" of this missile, the commission says, may be able to
reach "U.S. territory in an arc extending northwest from Phoenix,
Arizona, to Madison, Wisconsin."
Let's not forget North Korea's Nodong missiles -- not only
targeted at American troops but sold to Pakistan, Libya and Iran.
Or the arms-race that erupted between Pakistan and India in 1998.
Or the missile programs in full swing in Syria and Iraq.
The point is, all this has taken place in a world ruled by the
ABM Treaty. Yes, the "big one" -- a Cold-War nuclear showdown
between the United States and the Soviet Union -- never occurred.
But it's clear the treaty's ability to preserve "strategic
stability," in a one-superpower world where missile proliferation
is common, has been wildly overblown.
In fact, we'll be safer without the treaty. Ask yourself: Will
the North Koreas of the world continue to waste their money
building missiles they know we'll be able to knock out of the
OK, critics may reply, but these threats have been building for
a while. Why withdraw from the ABM Treaty before we have a system
ready to go? Let's test some more. But that's just the point. Under
the treaty, we can't test some of our most promising
missile-defense systems. It allows only one ground-based system --
and even this system had numerous constraints. There's no way to
create the layered system the president envisions, with land-, sea-
and space-based components, without violating the treaty.
Ironically, Russia seems more amenable to the president's
decision than many of his hyperventilating critics. The Union of
Concerned Scientists, for example, says our withdrawal "could block
even deeper cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals." Yet in
January both nations will sit down to discuss not if they'll
be cutting their arsenals, but how deeply and how fast.
Sounds like President Bush rolled the "diplomatic dice" -- and won.
Jack Spencer is a policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire