- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

Recently, Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush announced his decision to develop and deploy a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system. He paired this announcement with a pledge to negotiate reductions in American and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Within 24 hours of the Bush press conference, the same coalition of scientists, politicians and pundits who lambasted Ronald Reagan's call for similar technology 17 years ago shook the dust off their old arguments and started launching them at the Republican candidate. Dubbing the proposal fiscally impractical, scientifically impossible and strategically imprudent, the Union of Concerned Scientists and a host of other liberal, pseudoscientific interest groups made haste to link Mr. Bush's plan to Mr. Reagan's "Star Wars."

But, associating George W. with Mr. Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is hardly the kiss of death ABM opponents might think. Rather, it just might put the Republicans one step closer to the White House.

Throughout the 1980s, comedians reveled in their depiction of SDI as the half-baked brainchild of a simple-minded president. Their liberal cohorts trotted out an array of pundits to condemn the "militarization of space," while thousands of university researchers refused to engage in missile defense research. Try as they might, however, the intelligentsia could not sink SDI.

Between 1985 and 1988 the peak of "anti-Star Wars" hysteria missile defense enjoyed the steady support of 70 percent of the American public, and Democratic and Republican Congresses alike consistently funded ABM research. When Mr. Reagan refused at Reykavijk to trade away SDI for Soviet arms concessions, ABM critics thought the American public would be outraged. But the president's move had the exact opposite effect.

Within a week of the October 1986 summit, Mr. Reagan's approval ratings jumped 11 points. That November, as even SDI critic Frances Fitzgerald concedes, the initiative's popularity forced several Democratic congressional candidates to pledge fealty to the president's program to secure victory at the polls. The public's attachment to the proposal mystified its critics. Focused on their own perceptions of SDI's geopolitical implications, they failed to grasp the strategic and symbolic significance of missile defense. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the cornerstone of America's defensive strategy since the 1960s, had never sat well with the American public. Resting American security on the assured slaughter of millions of innocent Russians directly contradicted the nation's desire to see itself as a benevolent agent abroad.

With unilateral disarmament as impractical as MAD was disconcerting, SDI offered a more attractive and more moral response to the nuclear threat. Furthermore, protestations that SDI was technically infeasible fell on deaf ears. In its short history, America had overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable technological feats. From the bridging of a continent via telephone wires and railroad ties to Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight at Kitty Hawk and Neil Armstrong's Moon landing, scientific achievements became an integral part of the national identity.

To most Americans doubting the country's ability to produce an effective ABM system was the equivalent of doubting the country itself. In the 1980s the Strategic Defense Initiative spoke directly to the needs of the day. It offered America the chance to escape from the delicate balance of terror wrought by the nuclear age through the strengths which the country had always prided itself on creativity, technology, and old-fashioned willpower. Americans responded to the president and his proposal with nearly unequivocal support. Now, 12 years after Mr. Reagan left the White House, George W. Bush has picked up the gauntlet of missile defense.

The Clinton administration, in its efforts to ward off domestic political criticism, occasionally toys with the idea of a very limited ABM system. But not since the days of Mr. Reagan has a bold call for full scale deployment been sounded.

Just as SDI rallied the populace during the waning days of the Cold War, Mr. Bush's plan for simultaneous ABM deployment and arms reductions promises to do the same today. The old appeal of strategic defenses still holds. Americans no more like the idea of massive nuclear retaliation today than they did 15 years ago. The explosion of "smart bombs" and "surgical strikes" in the 1990s has further weakened the national stomach for the type of confrontation demanded by MAD. Those same military advancements, combined with unprecedented growth in the American economy and the dot-com revolution have fed America's technological arrogance. In 1985, with computers still moving at a snail's pace, two-thirds of Americans ignored the experts and believed in the feasibility of ABM deployment. In 2000, those numbers are unlikely to dip any lower. If history repeats itself and in the world of politics it almost always does George W. stands to reap the same benefits from ballistic missile defense as Ronald Reagan.

Nuclear stockpile reductions and ABM technology offer more than a literal break with America's Cold War past and the beginning of an American military ready to face the challenges of a new century. They also symbolically encompass the confidence, energy, and strategic thinking currently dominating the country. Mr. Bush, by embracing missile defense, has aligned himself with a new generation. Al Gore, with his fretting and nay-saying, is entrenched in a campaign of negativity and doubt that stands in sharp contrast to the steps both his opponent and the nation are taking.

Edwin Meese III was attorney general and also served on the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. Emily Stimpson is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.

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