- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

It being defense week in the Bush White House, this column will take the liberty of revisiting a topic recently discussed here national missile defense (NMD) which provoked particularly interesting reactions from European diplomats and officials in Washington. The changed tone and substance in discussions over NMD could hardly have been greater. What seemed only like intimations of a change in the air last week have taken more definite shape.
The watershed event in the discussion of missile defense, of course, was the appearance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the NATO defense minister's annual Wehrkunde meeting in Munich. It bears repeating what Mr. Rumsfeld said that was so remarkable. For one thing, he told the European allies that the Bush administration was committed to developing missile defense and would do so with or without their consent. However, he also emphasized that extensive consultations would take place and that the United States did not want this issue to create a split in the alliance. In fact, he said that American allies ought to be covered and extensively consulted.
The question is whether Mr. Rumsfeld by these bold moves have managed to cut this particular Gordian knot. While it appears so on first impressions, it is also clear that as we move to the next level of the debate, a whole new set of issues will have to be dealt with. Now, we know that missile defense is not a question of "if," but "when." Than comes the questions "how," and "at what price."
Most startling was the comment in Moscow this week by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, that despite Russia's vigorous objection to any system that violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, "In the end, the Russians are going to accept it." Now, judging by the remarks of Russian National Security Adviser Sergei Ivanov, who responded to Mr. Rumsfeld's speech with a series of paranoid rantings of his own, it hardly sounds that way. "It will result in the annihilation of the whole structure of strategic stability and create the prerequisites for a new arms race," Mr. Ivanov said. Mr. Fischer, however, was cool as a cucumber. The Russian comments "are sometimes a bit harsh," he reflected. "But it all depends on the climate. The climate is good; there's a difference between statements and climate."
Meanwhile, at a German ambassador's breakfast this week, a high ranking German government official speaking on background, actually welcomed the approach of the new American administration, which is remarkable given that most Europeans displayed a distinct distrust, not to say disdain for candidate George W. Bush during the presidential campaign. "Rumsfeld coming to NATO in Munich after just two weeks in office sends a very important signal," he said. Asked whether the Clinton administration did not consult with the Europeans which despite all their protestations they certainly skimped on the official hedged, but said that "there is a difference. In the Clinton administration there was no decision to do so."
Conversations with representatives of other European countries reflected a similar sense of resignation, bordering on relief. "U.S. leadership is a good thing," said Olli-Pekka Jalonen, defense counsel at the embassy of Finland. "It is better to have someone who knows what he wants." According to Danish ambassador Ulrik A. Federspiel, who spoke to The Washington Times this week, "Rumsfeld's speech was sufficiently clear that the Americans will go ahead. That may have cleared the air."
Even a spokesman for the French embassy, Francois Delattre (whose President Jaques Chirac warned that missile defense was "an invitation to proliferation" at an Anglo-French summit last week) said that France "is not opposed, but has some doubts that it is the best possible answer to the threat we now have to face. Furthermore, "whatever our concerns, we think it is an American decision."
Obvious as this fact may seem, it is huge progress. Somehow threats of a split within the NATO alliance have evaporated, and talk is everywhere of extensive consultations within the alliance, particularly as far as threat assessment is concerned and beyond that, trade offs, costs and systems.
The bottomline is that discussions must not become a bureaucratic nightmare, a labyrinth of commissions within commissions, a specialty of the European bureaucracy. If Europe wants threat assessment, we could ship a load of copies of the Rumsfeld Commission report on the missile threat to Brussels. Then there is the question of whether American acceptance of the European Security and Defense Initiative could be a trade off, or dramatic nuclear missile reduction to 1,500 as set out in START III negotiations with the Russians. As far as systems go, the European preference is clearly for theater missile defense, which can provide localized boost-phase interception, for areas like Europe, the Middle East, Japan and Korea and does not violate the ABM treaty. This still would leave the mainland of the United States vulnerable though, and has to be combined with another system, probably space-based, to protect the United States. By all means let us have consultation and discussion. That does not mean, however, that we should allow the subject to be talked to death.
E-mail: hbering@washingtontimes.com.

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