- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

With impeccable timing, the Bush administration launched the issue of national missile defense the very same week Ronald Reagan was in the news again, celebrating his 90th birthday.
It is surely not too much to say that were Mr. Reagan aware of the determination with which the new Republican administration is moving forward with this difficult and controversial issue, he would be very proud. In the 1980s, it was his own Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which finally convinced the Soviet leadership that they would never catch up with U.S. technological superiority, this by the account of no less than Mikhail Gorbachev himself.
Over the weekend, it fell to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at the Munich Conference on International Security, to inform our European allies that the United States means business when it comes to missile defense, just as Mr. Reagan informed the Russians at Reykjavik. "The United States intends to develop and deploy a missile defense designed to defend our people and our forces against a limited missile attack," Mr. Rumsfeld said. Pointedly omitting the word "national" usually part of the concept of "national missile defense" (NMD) he also said that the United States "is prepared to assist friends and allies threatened by missile attack to deploy such forces."
And guess what happened? The sky didn't fall. Despite predictions that NMD would cause a fatal rift within NATO and cause the Russians to go ballistic (one way or the other), reality had a sobering and so far salutary effect, as it often has. By now, Americans are overwhelmingly convinced that in an unpredictable and well-armed world, a national missile shield is a reasonable idea. Our allies might yet come around, too.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, also speaking in Munich, put the issue in stark terms. "Total vulnerability should not be the price the United States is asked to pay" for transatlantic solidarity, he said. Indeed. Mr. Kissinger also reminded his European audience that the deployment of defensive technologies is a far saner approach than the strategy of mutually assured destruction, a superpower-suicide pact, enshrined in the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and said to have kept the peace throughout the Cold War.
Echoing Mr. Rumsfeld's argument that building a missile defense is a "moral issue" for the president, Mr. Kissinger remarked that no U.S. president today can allow a situation in which "extinction of civilized life is one's only strategy" when faced with a small nuclear attack from a rogue nation. (Or no president except Bill Clinton, one might ad, for that was precisely the status quo he allowed to exist during the eight years of his presidency.
It even appears that Europeans are reluctantly coming on board, as the Bush team always predicted they would when faced with the firm determination by the Americans to proceed. At the Munich Conference on International Security, realists were talking about possible tradeoffs such as American support for the planned European rapid reaction force, in return for European support on NMD.
It is also a fact that opinions in Europe have been fragmenting for some time. The British Conservatives, whose foreign policy spokesman Ian Duncan Smith will be discussing the subject in Washington next week, are in favor of NMD, as are conservatives elsewhere on the continent. One high-ranking European diplomat in Washington even suggested recently that the problem with national missile defense may be mainly semantic. If the name were nuclear missile defense, the concept might be more palatable, he suggested.
Particularly interesting has been the reaction of NATO Secretary General George Robertson, who suddenly has become a convert to NMD, provided it is done within a NATO context. Mr. Robertson even admitted there is a missile threat, so far unacknowledged by Europeans, that needs to be dealt with. His predecessor, Javier Solana, amazingly admitted that the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty "is not the Bible." Well. What a difference an election makes.
Meanwhile, Russia is taking its own precautions, evidently realizing that the Americans are serious. This week, Moscow announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin in the spring will meet with the leaders of North Korea and Iran such lovely friends the Russians have. The idea allegedly is for the Russians to demonstrate their diplomatic influence with these countries to downgrade their missile programs, which is a bit of a hoot of course. Alternatively, Mr. Putin has hinted that some nations will have to revise their procurement programs in order for their missile force not to become obsolete. That would be Russia and China. However, you look at it, the Russians appear a good deal more frantic than they did six months ago when they were able to bully President Clinton into suspending his modest NMD program.
While U.S. national missile defense may not change the balance of power in the same way Ronald Reagan's SDI did, the reaction of friends and foes abroad leaves no doubt that NMD will be a strategic milestone. Imagine a world in which ballistic missiles are obsolete. Doesn't sound so bad does it?
E-mail: hbering@washingtontimes.com.

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