- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

As the Clinton administration finishes dusting itself off from its stunning defeat on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it should stop fretting about the dangers of the supposed new isolationism and move on to a serious effort to avoid the next train wreck. Within little more than six months, the president will have to decide whether or not the United States will proceed with deploying a national missile defense. But a failure now to devote serious and sustained attention to working with Capitol Hill to ensure a successful outcome will lead to a disaster whose impact on domestic politics and on our relations with Europe and Russia will make CTBT seem like a mere fender-bender.

Missile defense is a tough issue. Republicans smell blood and want to paint the administration (and thus Vice President Gore) as soft on defense. The Europeans worry that we are abandoning them to a Fortress America. The Russians fear their strategic deterrent will become meaningless. And deployment of even a limited national missile defense system will violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Presidential elections in both the United States and Russia in 2000 only add to the difficulty.

In short, few could have found a worse time to develop a policy that can square the circle of a serious U.S. effort to defend against rogue states and accidental launches while at the same time not causing damage to our core alliance or our important work with Moscow to ensure nuclear safety.

What to do? As the Clinton administration works with the Russians in the next few months to try to forge an agreement on modifying the ABM Treaty in ways that would allow the deployment of a limited defense but continue to restrict deployment of strategically significant systems, it is imperative that any deal struck have Congressional support. If the CTBT debacle has proven anything it is that Congress must be brought along from the get-go to ensure sufficient support for a negotiated outcome.

To do so, the administration should ask the leadership in Congress to establish an ABM Observer Group patterned after the hugely successful Arms Control Observer Group in the 1980s and the Senate NATO Observer Group of recent years. Such a group should be bipartisan, and include members of the congressional leadership as well as important committee chairmen and ranking minority members.

The administration should also announce that it is appointing a high level person to work with Congress on missile defenses on a day-to-day basis. This person will ensure that the ABMCOG receives regular briefings on administration discussions with the Europeans and Russians. Congress must also be confident that this person can feed their input directly into the negotiating process. To further depoliticize the issue, closed briefings should be held, as they were for the arms control and NATO observer groups.

A solution to the problem of missile defenses and the ABM Treaty is necessary and possible. Americans deserve a defense against rogue or accidental launches if it is technologically feasible and economically affordable. We can convince the Europeans that such a limited system would only make us less susceptible to nuclear blackmail and might even be deployed to defend them as well. And by tying our work on defense with a real commitment to go to much lower levels of offensive nuclear weapons, we should be able to work with Russia.

But each of these efforts are complex enough on their own, and they are that much harder since they have to go together. The worst possible outcome would be if the administration succeeded in reassuring the Europeans and getting the Russians to accept the needed modifications in the ABM Treaty only to have the deal once again torpedoed by the Senate. Coming after the CTBT defeat, that would be a true disaster for American foreign policy. To avoid that possibility, Congress and the administration must commit now to engage in close and intense consultation in as depoliticized an environment as possible to ensure that whatever is agreed through negotiations will get the Senate's ultimate support.

James Goldgeier and Ivo Daalder are visiting fellows at the Brookings Institution.

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