- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

The general's words were soothing but their implications were chilling. Supporters of George W. Bush had been deeply impressed by his unwavering commitment during the campaign to deploy ballistic missile defenses "as soon as possible." But Colin Powell's response to a question on Saturday about how the new administration would proceed sounded a lot more like "not any time soon."
To be sure, the secretary of state-designate did say that "a national missile defense is an essential part of our overall strategic force posture, which consists of offensive weapons, command and control systems, intelligence systems and a national missile defense." He emphasized that it is necessary to devalue "the currency associated with strategic offensive weapons and the blackmail that is inherent in some regime having that kind of weapon and thinking they can hold us hostage."
But the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also declared: "When a secretary of defense is named, that person will go into the Pentagon and make a full assessment of the state of technology where are we, what can we accomplish and structure a plan." Then he added: "We have to spend time discussing it with our allies, discussing it with other nations in the world that possess strategic offensive weapons and do not yet understand our thinking in respect to national missile defense. These will be tough negotiations. I don't expect them to be easy. But they will come to the understanding that we feel this is in the best interest of the American people."
While it sounds reasonable for a new president to take some time to "review" his options and present his plans to U.S. allies and potential adversaries, time is the enemy of a presidential initiative on missile defense. This is doubly true if as Robert Kagan reports in an article in yesterday's Washington Post the Bush team believes it may take "as long as a year" to do accomplish all this.
Especially worrisome to supporters of missile defense is the prospect that such a review and negotiations may be conducted by people who have, heretofore at least, evinced little enthusiasm for actually deploying a U.S. anti-missile system. For example, during his stint as President Reagan's national security adviser and President George H. Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Powell was notably tepid on the subject, at best; at worst, he viewed it as an unjustifiable drain on resources needed for other Pentagon priorities and a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Soviet Union.
The Scowcroft National Security Council on which Condeleeza Rice had the Soviet portfolio during Bush I was hostile to efforts to deploy missile defenses from 1989 to 1983. And Mr. Powell's reported pick for secretary of defense, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, repeatedly voted as a congressman to slash billions of dollars from the budget for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Of course, people change their minds and certainly the changed strategic circumstances over the past decade and strong presidential direction can make a huge difference in attitudes.
If the Bush-Cheney administration fails to act swiftly on what was the campaign's most explicit foreign and defense policy plank, however, it will only embolden opponents of missile defenses on Capitol Hill and overseas. As Mr. Kagan observes:
"Contrary to what many Bush officials may think, it will be harder, not easier, to gain support for missile defense if Bush waits until 2002. Bush politicos think missile defense is unappetizing this year. But guess what? They won't find it any tastier next year. Meanwhile, once the world figures out that Bush is reluctant to press the issue at home, the aura of inevitability will vanish, and Bush officials … will have a harder time convincing the Europeans and Russians that they have to make a deal. Persistent international opposition will strengthen the hand of opponents in Congress."
Accordingly, if Mr. Bush is serious about implementing his pledge to defend the United States against missile attack, he must seize the initiative immediately. On Day 1 of his presidency, he should announce that in six months' time the United States will begin the process of deploying anti-missile defenses for our forces and allies overseas and the American people here at home.
Toward that end, he should order the U.S. Navy and the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to take steps to modify one or more AEGIS fleet air defense ships to prepare them to serve as anti-ballistic missile platforms. Mr. Bush spoke favorably of this idea in the campaign, and successive Pentagon analyses confirm its inherent feasibility, affordability and strategic utility.
In addition, this "AEGIS option" enjoys bipartisan support. It has been explicitly endorsed by a number of leading Democrats, including former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and former Deputy Secretaries of Defense John White and John Deutch. A number of congressional Democrats have also publicly supported it, as have leading Republicans including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
It will take some time, of course, to complete this transformation. The anti-missile systems deployed initially will have limited, if any, capability against most fast-flying long-range ballistic missiles. They will be effective, however, against shorter-range missile threats to our troops and friends overseas with which we must deal immediately. What is more if the new president personally directs the Pentagon to take this step; authorizes such funds as are needed to be provided for the work immediately at hand out of existing missile defense funds and prepares to secure additional funding from Congress on an emergency basis; and mandates that streamlined acquisition procedures be followed, this approach will permit an effective, limited national missile defense to be deployed as soon as technologically possible.
As it happens, that is not only what Mr. Bush pledged to do. It is precisely what the law of the land requires, pursuant to the Missile Defense Act of 1999 a statute passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the Senate and House and signed into law in August of last year by President Clinton.
Once Mr. Bush gets the first stage of his missile defense initiative under way, there will be time to review other options that will further enhance its effectiveness. Since he will be pursuing an approach that will provide anti-missile protection to U.S. allies, he will be in a far stronger position to discuss with them our commitment to missile defense.
And, by giving the Russians six months' advance notice of our deployment plans, Mr. Bush can either explicitly or simply de facto meet the requirements for withdrawal from the obsolete and legally defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibited such defenses. Those six months can also be used to address Russian and others' concerns, provided it is understood that the decision to proceed with deployment has been made.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, if not now, when will missile defenses be deployed? If not by George W. Bush, who promised to do that "at the earliest possible time," by whom?

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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