- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2000

When it comes to defending the nation, does it really matter who wins the election? After all, both candidates would continue developing missile defense technology. But would either actually deploy defenses?
Gov. George W. Bush says he will. He has said, "America must build effective missile defenses, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date," adding that, "they must protect all 50 states and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas." That is a very strong statement. But Mr. Bush also says he will "offer Russia the necessary amendments to the ABM Treaty to make our deployment of effective missile defenses consistent with the treaty." If Russia refuses the changes, he "will give prompt notice … that the U.S. can no longer be a party to it."
Vice President Al Gore has said, "I would work hard to persuade Russia to modify the ABM Treaty … but I would not let Russian opposition stand in the way of its deployment, if I conclude the technologies are mature enough to deploy and are both affordable and needed." Harvard professor Graham Allison, a senior Gore adviser, adds that the vice president is committed to finding a way to provide adequate defenses against Iraq or North Korea without withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. Mr. Gore strongly endorses President Clinton's promise to preserve the ABM Treaty as "the cornerstone of strategic stability."
But what does Moscow say? Russia firmly opposes any change in the ABM Treaty. For over a year the Clinton-Gore team has been doing what Mr. Gore promises more of trying to get Moscow to agree to change the treaty with zero success. Russia is determined to keep the treaty unchanged to prevent deployment of U.S. defenses. As recently as Oct. 19, the Foreign Ministry said Russia will not even negotiate about changing the treaty, because changing it "is impossible since the essence of the treaty is to ban deployment of a territorial ABM system."
The Russians are right. The ABM Treaty bans a national missile defense. Article I prohibits any missile defense of the whole country. Amending it, as Mr. Bush suggests, or modifying it, as Mr. Gore proposes, to allow a national missile defense, cannot be done without, as the Russians say, "dismantling" the treaty. The only way to deploy an effective national missile defense is to scrap the treaty. Both candidates say they will do that if they have to, but both prefer to find another way. The question is how long will they try to square the circle before concluding it cannot be done. And when they reach that conclusion, what will they do?
Mr. Gore's caveat, "if I conclude the technologies are mature enough to deploy and are both affordable and needed," gives him several ways out. Opponents of missile defense always say the technology is not ready and requires more research. They also inflate the cost estimates and claim it is not affordable. Mr. Gore can use those arguments to delay deployment for years.
The statement from the Gore camp about defending against North Korea or Iraq gives him another way out. If North Korea can be bought off and Iraq kept under sanctions, Mr. Gore can say the threat does not justify deployment. That would be consistent with the administration's position that the strategic nuclear missiles of Russia and China, which were produced and deployed to target the U.S., pose no threat to this country.
On this issue the Clinton-Gore administration defers to the Democratic Party's left wing, which opposes a national missile defense with messianic ferocity. Moderate Democrats, including many in Congress, began to see the importance of missile defense two years ago when North Korea launched a missile over Japan and prepared to test a longer-range model that could reach the United States. That North Korean launch was a defining event. Another defining event such as a missile splashdown near Hawaii or the West Coast, or a failure of Russia's command-and-control network and Mr. Gore may well move to deploy defenses.
So what is the difference between the candidates? It is this: Gov. Bush promises to deploy effective missile defenses as soon as possible, and surely remembers what happened to his father when he broke a promise to the voters. Vice President Gore promises to preserve the ABM Treaty as long as possible. Mr. Gore will wait for another defining event before deploying defenses against Moscow's wishes. Mr. Bush will not wait.
The difference is between defending the country and defending the ABM Treaty. That is something to think about on Nov. 7.James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.

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