- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2000

Seventeen years ago, in announcing his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), President Ronald Reagan turned the decades-old nuclear strategic doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) on its head. Proposing to banish to the ash heap of history the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which forbade the United States from deploying defenses to thwart a nuclear-missile attack on America, Mr. Reagan asked two simple questions: "Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them?

The nearly two decades that have elapsed since Mr. Reagan posed the question have been noteworthy for the utterly destabilizing effect of rapid, and now accelerating, proliferation of ballistic missile technology, which has now found its way to numerous rogue states, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria. Incomprehensibly, Americans today are no more protected from ballistic missile attacks than they were when Mr. Reagan directed U.S. scientists to conduct a "comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles."

The failure to deploy defensive systems cannot be attributed to popular opposition. Indeed, according to a Zogby poll conducted in February, more than 60 percent of Americans want "a viable missile-defense system in place rather than relying on the diplomatic success of disarmament treaties."

Nor can the failure to defend against ballistic missile attack be attributed to the absence of a feasible system whose deployment could begin almost immediately. A global missile-defense system, based on existing technology, could exploit the $50 billion that has already been invested in the Navy's 22 Aegis cruisers. For a mere $2 to $3 billion, or about $500 million per year over the next five years, the Pentagon could modify the Aegis air-defense systems to enable them to destroy not only short-and medium-range ballistic missiles but also long-range, or strategic, missiles capable of carrying nuclear, biological or chemical warheads to the U.S. mainland.

Given the promise and affordability offered by sea-based defenses, to what, then, can the failure to seek to deploy them be attributed? First, there has clearly been a failure of will during the Clinton-Gore administration, which entered office actively opposed to ballistic missile defense. In 1993, for example, President Clinton canceled both the SDI program and the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes program, a missile-defense system proposed by President Bush to protect U.S. territory and U.S. troops overseas.

Second, the Clinton-Gore administration has utterly reversed the priorities Mr. Reagan outlined in 1983. Instead of recognizing the moral superiority of saving lives over avenging them, Messrs. Clinton and Gore have embraced the ABM treaty as, in the words of National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, the "cornerstone of U.S. strategic policy." To that end, the misguided president has been desperately seeking permission from Russia, a nation that did not even exist in 1972 when the Soviet Union signed the ABM treaty, to modify the treaty's terms to enable the United States to deploy a far inferior land-based missile-defense system in Alaska, which would also be far more expensive and take much longer to deploy than the Aegis option.

Mr. Clinton is scheduled to decide this summer whether to move forward with the Alaskan option. A bipartisan effort led by Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is now afoot to delay any decision until the next administration. That would be a big mistake. The time for a decision has long since passed. The Aegis sea-based option is technologically feasible, fiscally affordable and globally operational, all of which makes its swiftest deployment morally mandatory.

Congressional Republicans ought to join GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush by endorsing the Aegis option now. Since saving lives is clearly preferable to merely avenging them, then doing so sooner must be preferable to doing it later. As for the ABM treaty, it deserves to be relegated to the same ash heap of history that one of its signatories, the former Soviet Union, now occupies.

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