- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000

Time may be running out for the Clinton-Gore administration to make a meaningful contribution in the nuclear arms arena. President Clinton dreads the idea that his lasting contribution would be the abrogation of the anachronistic Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Both Mr. Clinton and Vice President Gore continue to argue that the ABM treaty represents the "cornerstone of strategic stability."

At the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, however, the Russian leader refused to acquiesce to changes to the ABM treaty that would permit Mr. Clinton to approve a very limited land-based national missile defense system based in Alaska. This represents a problem for the White House. In order for the Alaska-based system to become operational by 2005 construction on its ABM treaty-busting radar would have to begin by next spring. That means that Mr. Clinton would have to make the decision to proceed during the fall of 2000.

The administration is so wedded to the ABM treaty that it apparently never occurred to it that Russia should not have veto power over a U.S. decision to defend itself against ICBMs launched by rogue states like North Korea, Iraq and Iran. In fact, in an apparent rhetorical effort to downplay the risk posed by these nations, the administration has inexplicably withdrawn the whole notion of "rogue states." In announcing that terrorism-exporting "rogue states" would now be known as "states of concern," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright unilaterally downgraded her earlier declaration that "dealing with rogue states is one of the great challenges of our time." That hasn't been the administration's only semantic response to strategic nuclear policy. When Mr. Putin refused to give his "permission" to amend the ABM treaty, a bevy of administration national-security lawyers simply reversed long-standing policy and concluded that any decision about the Alaskan radar's construction that Mr. Clinton would make during his term would not abrogate the ABM treaty.

In other words, Mr. Clinton does not have the guts to make the decision to abrogate the ABM treaty even if it is in pursuit of a relatively inferior missile-defense strategy. According to a law Mr. Clinton reluctantly signed last year, he is committed to approving the deployment of a national missile defense system as soon as it is technologically feasible with or without Mr. Putin's permission. An independent review of the land-based national missile defense program recently concluded that the United States has the "technical capability to develop and field the limited system" against a threat posed by the likes of North Korea.

Were Messrs. Clinton and Gore truly in favor of a reliable missile-defense strategy, they would supplement the limited land-based system (which would seek to destroy nuclear warheads after they have been released in space) with a more promising sea-based system (which could more easily destroy long-range or medium-range missiles in their "boost" phase before they release their warheads). A sea-based system would also protect American allies. But that would require even more changes in the ABM treaty, or, preferably, its complete abrogation. That is a development the Clinton-Gore administration seems determined to preclude even at the expense of the defense of the American population. And that appears to be the legacy Mr. Clinton will bequeath.

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