- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2000

Looking for a life-and-death reason to support one presidential candidate over the other? Consider the positions of George W. Bush and Al Gore on the issue of national missile defense (NMD).

Which candidate would enter the White House most determined to defend the United States from the cataclysmic consequences of a ballistic-missile attack involving weapons of mass destruction? Mr. Bush has declared he would assume the presidency bearing "a solemn obligation to protect the American people and our allies, not to protect arms control agreements signed almost 30 years ago." Mr. Gore, on the other hand, has asserted that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which was signed in 1972 with the now-defunct Soviet Union and which prohibits the United States from defending the entire nation against ballistic-missile attack, would remain "the cornerstone of strategic stability in our relationship with Russia." In July, Mr. Gore made clear what his chief priority would be: "You don't want to discard the ABM treaty."

Two months ago President Clinton acknowledged that the threat of ballistic-missile attack from nations like North Korea, Iraq and Iran is "real and growing." Nevertheless, he decided not to authorize the initial steps that would culminate in the deployment of a NMD system. Mr. Gore enthusiastically supported the president's decision. In failing to act, Mr. Clinton rejected the advice of Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who had strongly recommended that the president approve the construction of a radar in Alaska. Beginning the construction of that radar would have been the first step in a multi-year process whose goal was actual deployment by 2005, the year North Korea is projected to be capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile against the United States. Mr. Clinton's decision effectively precludes the Pentagon from meeting the 2005 deadline.

In effect, Mr. Clinton permitted Russian President Vladimir Putin to have a veto over U.S. national security policy, which, according to legislation signed last year by Mr. Clinton, requires the United States to "deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system." Mr. Putin has refused to amend the anachronistic 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in ways that would permit the United States to build even a very limited land-based NMD system in Alaska.

The Clinton-Gore administration caved under Mr. Putin's relentless pressure. It probably was not very painful either. In fact, Messrs. Clinton and Gore entered office utterly opposed to any notion of missile defense. In 1993, two of the administration's first national security decisions were to cancel the Bush administration's Global Protection Against Limited Strikes program and to downgrade the Pentagon's anti-missile research and development programs. After repeatedly downplaying the ballistic-missile threat from rogue nations, the administration was ultimately dragged kicking and screaming into ostensibly supporting NMD only after the independent, bipartisan Rumsfeld commission unanimously concluded that the administration's threat assessments were grossly inaccurate.

As it happens, the land-based system the Clinton-Gore administration had been considering would be the least effective and least robust anti-missile system available. Although preferable to no NMD system at all, the land-based system, which would be required to destroy warheads after they were released from their rocket(s), is far inferior to the more robust sea-based ABM system that Mr. Bush has embraced. In addition to being able to protect America's overseas military forces and its allies, the sea-based ABM system is also preferable because it would have the capability to destroy ballistic missiles in their much more vulnerable "boost phase" before they release their warheads and decoys.

Because of its tight embrace of the ABM treaty, the Clinton-Gore administration missed a major opportunity to advance the nation's security. In the meantime, several rogue nations have made significant advances in their ballistic-missile programs. Indeed, according to the Rumsfeld commission, Russia was an important factor in improving Iran's missile program, representing yet another major foreign policy failure for Mr. Gore, the administration's point man for Russian policy. Having helped to create the problem, Mr. Gore can hardly be expected to solve it. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, not only clearly understands the problem; he knows how to solve it.

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