- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

Twenty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan stunned the world and turned the conventional wisdom of Cold War geopolitics and U.S.-Soviet relations on its ear. In a nationally televised speech, Mr. Reagan unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) by asking a simple question: "Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them?"
"I am taking an important first step," the president told the nation, its allies, other countries and, most important of all, America's Soviet adversary. "I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles."
The situation confronting America 20 years ago, when the Cold War was at its peak, was not favorable. At the time of Mr. Reagan's historic speech, the United States was in the initial stages of a nuclear rearmament program. That buildup was necessary to counter the Soviet Union's relentless push over the previous decade for long-term strategic advantage.
Indeed, between 1973 and 1983, the two superpowers moved from relative parity in terms of warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to a situation in which the Soviets had achieved massive superiority in these most powerful, accurate and threatening strategic weapons. In 1973, U.S. ICBM warheads totaled 1,754, compared to 1,527 for the Soviets. By 1983, however, the Soviets had achieved an overwhelming 3-to-1 advantage. In 1983, there were 6,000 ICBM warheads in the Soviets' first-strike ICBM arsenal, compared to 2,100 warheads deployed on U.S. ICBMs that were deployed in an unambiguously non-first-strike capacity. At the same time, moreover, the Soviets enjoyed a monopoly on land-based first-strike ballistic missiles in Europe and Asia; were in massive violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which prohibited the deployment of a nationwide anti-missile system; and were illegally producing huge stocks of biological-warfare weapons.
Under these circumstances, Mr. Reagan became so attached to the long-term benefits offered by SDI, which his critics immediately derided as "Star Wars," that he refused to bargain the program away in return for short-term arms-control concessions in 1986 from then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Despite worldwide condemnation, Mr. Reagan never wavered. His steadfastness eventually paid incalculable dividends. As former Reagan arms-control official Ken Adelman reported in 1999, no less than Mr. Gorbachev had confirmed to him the fact that it was Mr. Reagan's refusal to bargain away SDI at the 1986 summit that precipitated the Soviet Union's eventual collapse five years later. The "Evil Empire" literally bankrupted itself attempting to compete with American technology.
More recent events have further validated Mr. Reagan's dreams. Against an onslaught of criticism, both domestic and foreign, President George W. Bush fulfilled his 2000 campaign promise by announcing in late 2001 that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the ABM treaty after Russia refused to negotiate its demise. So-called arms-control experts and leaders of the Democratic Party immediately predicted that Russia would react by jettisoning previous arms-control agreements and refusing to sign future ones. Like Mr. Reagan's critics, they, too, were wrong. Five months later, in May 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to slash Russia's strategic nuclear warheads from roughly 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200.
In a further ratification of Mr. Reagan's prescience and geopolitical foresight, three months ago Mr. Bush ordered the Pentagon to begin deploying an ABM system by 2004. This admittedly rudimentary system will likely prove to be the first stage of a very robust multi-layered (land-, sea-, air- and space-based) system.
North Korea's relentless efforts to develop and test an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear weapon which it is believed to possess and which it seeks to augment to the American mainland make deployment of an ABM system an urgent task. That danger and the efforts of other rogue states to match it confirm what a brilliant visionary Mr. Reagan truly was 20 years ago today.

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