Tuesday, January 18, 2000

Last week, Russia served notice that it was adopting a new nuclear doctrine. The change, which we are told was personally engineered by Acting President Vladimir Putin, signals that the Kremlin has ominously relaxed the conditions under which it would feel free to use nuclear weapons.

The timing of the leak of this 21-page Kremlin document seems likely to be, as longtime communists like Mr. Putin were wont to say, “no accident, comrade.” Suggestions the Russians might resort to the use of nuclear weapons if, say, their new black-belted leader gets up on the wrong side of the bed, are calculated to influence at least the atmospherics and probably the content of U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations scheduled to occur this week.

Resuscitating the Russian threat at this juncture certainly serves the purpose of the two senior American officials leading these discussions, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Assistant Defense Mr. Secretary Ted Warner. Prior to coming to government under President Clinton, both men made careers out of promoting dubious disarmament initiatives. During their time in office, though, the perception Russia no longer posed a menace to the United States largely deprived the bilateral arms control process of the fear factor it needs to thrive.

Now, thanks to the convergence of a more aggressive leadership in the Kremlin and the twilight hours of the Clinton presidency, Messrs. Talbott and Warner hope to conclude what may be the ultimate bad arms control deal: A “grand compromise” that would substantially eviscerate the U.S. nuclear deterrent for example, forcing the elimination of one “leg” of America’s historic strategic triad in exchange for Russian agreement to a U.S. “national” missile defense deployment in Alaska so artificially constrained as to be ineffectual.

The outlines of this deal have been clear for some time. It would involve finally securing ratification by the Russian Duma of the long-stalled and largely neutered START II Treaty.

A new deal, START III, will be agreed; it will create extremely low ceilings for U.S. forces according to some reports, below 1,000 strategic warheads essentially determined by whatever level of nuclear arms the Russians can afford to maintain. This START III deal will involve unverifiable and ill-advised requirements for the destruction of nuclear warheads. It will also allow the Russians to deploy more than one warhead on their intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

In exchange for these U.S. concessions and an American commitment not to depart from the obsolete 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russians will deign to permit that accord to be amended so as to permit the United States to deploy perhaps as few as 20 land-based interceptors capable of providing a minimal defense against missile attack for parts of the United States. (Incredible as it may seem, the American negotiators are prepared to restrict the number of defensive interceptors to such a small number not only to secure Russia’s acquiescence but to avoid “threatening” China’s nuclear deterrent.)

In this fashion, President Clinton hopes not only to secure yet another signing ceremony and piece of paper for his legacy. He also hopes to hand his designated successor, Al Gore, a stick with which to beat his Republican opponent.

As every GOP candidate has pledged to deploy a missile defense for the American people, the potential political vulnerability associated with continuing to refuse to do so has become intolerable to Clinton-Gore operatives. Consequently, the president pledged last year to decide whether to deploy a limited anti-missile system in Alaska by sometime next summer. A test scheduled to occur today could determine whether that commitment is met or, as has happened repeatedly in the past, is postponed.

Vice President Al Gore has throughout his career been opposed to the deployment of anti-missile defenses and a champion of the ABM Treaty. If Russian acquiescence can be secured to the fielding of a very limited deployment in Alaska, however, Mr. Gore would gain the political cover he needs for the moment. Should Mr. Gore then be elected, it seems likely that in due course he will abandon this deployment on the grounds it is unjustifiably expensive, given its inherent limitations in terms of the territory it can defend, the numbers of incoming missiles it can contend with and its uncertain effectiveness.

It behooves Republicans who are committed actually to defending the United States against missile attack and to preserving a credible nuclear deterrent to lay out an alternative vision now before they are confronted with the sort of “Grand Compromise” Messrs. Talbott and Warner hope to bring home. They should, for example, stake out the following, contrasting principles:

c The United States needs a missile defense flexible enough to protect both its own people and its forces and allies overseas. A single-site Alaska defense cannot accomplish this objective. It can be achieved most rapidly, most efficiently and most affordably from the sea, by adapting the Navy’s AEGIS fleet air defense system to shoot down ballistic missiles. George W. Bush, John McCain and Steve Forbes have all explicitly endorsed this approach. It would, however, be permanently foreclosed by the grand compromise.

c The size and composition of U.S. nuclear forces must be determined by the nature and complexion of our deterrent requirements. In today’s world to say nothing of tomorrow’s these are going to be driven by more multifaceted considerations than simply the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Economic realities seem likely to compel the Kremlin sharply to reduce its obsolescing nuclear arsenal, regardless of the bellicosity of its rhetoric or doctrine. We do not necessarily want to follow suit, though.

There is only one good thing that might come of the Talbott-Warner effort to forge a grand compromise: It could offer the American people a clear choice this election season between a defense of the United States rooted in practical military capabilities or one governed by arms control illusions and the unduly circumscribed, and potentially wholly inadequate, protection they would permit us to maintain.

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

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