- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

President Clinton's much ballyhooed mission to Moscow has come and gone, and nothing has changed. Americans still want protection against ballistic missiles, and the Kremlin still is opposed. So where do we go from here? Mr. Clinton appears ready to fudge the whole issue with a decision that decides nothing.

The president has promised to decide this year whether to deploy a national missile defense. The Pentagon plan is to deploy 20 missile interceptors in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, by 2005 and expand them to 100 by 2007. This would protect the United States against up to 25 or 30 missiles, assuming two to four shots at each. Sea-based and other missile defenses could be added when they are ready.

The first step is to build a big new X-band radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutians. But work in the harsh climate can only be done in late spring and summer. To finish by 2005, contracts must be awarded this November so supplies can be ordered for work to begin in April. A decision by the president is needed within the next few months.

If Mr. Clinton orders deployment without Russian agreement it would be tantamount to abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The Russians, Chinese and our European allies would create a diplomatic row of the kind the president has carefully avoided. His own left wing would be irate, and Mr. Gore would share the blame. But if Mr. Clinton does not order deployment, he will cede the national security issue to the Republicans and confirm the widely held belief the Democratic Party is anti-defense.

It's a tough conundrum, but the president appears to be moving toward a typical Clinton solution. He is expected to order construction to begin, but claim it is not deployment. Digging foundations, he will say, is not deploying defenses. Then he will leave for his successor the need to confirm the deployment and deal with the ABM Treaty, the Russians and the allies.

The ABM Treaty does not define deployment, but most experts think starting construction of missile-defense radars and silos would be the beginning of deployment. When the Soviets built the big Krasnoyarsk radar in the 1980s as a deliberate violation of the ABM Treaty, Soviet apologists argued it was not a violation because it was not yet operational. Mr. Clinton might use the same reasoning to begin construction in Alaska.

Russia has had missile defenses of Moscow in place for more than 30 years. They were grandfathered in under the ABM Treaty. But missile defenses for the United States would diminish the value of Moscow's missiles and reduce proud Russia to just another foreign aid recipient, so Moscow will oppose U.S. missile defenses as long as possible.

Mr. Clinton thought he could talk Russian President Vladimir Putin into agreeing to swap deep cuts in nuclear weapons (which Moscow wants) for modest amendments to the ABM Treaty to allow a limited defense of the United States. But 25 Senate Republicans, including most of the leaders, killed that idea with a letter warning the president that such a deal would be dead on arrival. And the nation's military commanders said a detailed study of nuclear requirements was needed before they could agree to deep reductions.

Still, Mr. Putin got something he wanted at the summit another strong statement of support by Mr. Clinton for the ABM Treaty. Fully six of the 16 points in the joint statement issued at the summit support the treaty. Again it is called the "cornerstone of strategic stability," and the two presidents promise to strengthen the treaty, increase its viability, reinforce its effectiveness, promote its objectives and link offenses to defenses. That's a thumb in the eye for Gov. George W. Bush, for Americans who want to be defended and in particular for the senators who warned the president before his trip that the treaty blocks an effective national missile defense.

Mr. Putin made it crystal clear that Russia opposes any changes to the ABM Treaty. But we have heard such determined opposition before. In the 1980s, Soviet leaders and our European allies alike said the sky would fall if the U.S. stopped complying with the unratified and fatally flawed SALT II arms-reduction treaty, and Moscow warned of dire consequences if Pershing II missiles were sent to NATO.

Yet, when President Reagan declared SALT II dead in 1986, there was scarcely a whimper. And when Pershing IIs were deployed to Europe, the Soviets quickly agreed to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and scrapped their SS-20 missiles that were threatening Western Europe. Leadership counts.

The way to get Moscow to negotiate is not to plead, cajole, or bribe it is to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and begin deploying defenses. You will be surprised how fast the Russians and the allies follow U.S. leadership, admit the end of mutual assured destruction and sit down to negotiate a post-Cold War security environment.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.

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