- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2000

After a year of high-profile anxiety about whether to comply with last year's congressional directive to

deploy a national missile defense (NMD) as soon as technologically feasible, President Clinton has done what he intended to do all along defer a decision to his successor. Development and testing of the interceptor and its new booster rockets will continue, but construction of the X-Band radar in the Aleutian Islands, which would violate the ABM treaty, will be deferred.

Now the decision whether to deploy will be made by the next president, who must ask the basic question, "Why does the U.S. need a national missile defense?" The Clinton administration says it is to defend against North Korea and other regimes of concern such as Iran and Iraq. That is based on what happened on Aug. 31, 1998, when North Korea launched a 3-stage missile over Japan, surprising the U.S. intelligence community. With modifications, that missile could reach Alaska and Hawaii, and a follow-on model known as Taepo Dong-2 that now is ready for flight-testing could reach the U.S. mainland.

That North Korean test, along with flight tests of new ballistic missiles by China, Iran, India and Pakistan, confirmed the Rumsfeld Commission report earlier the same year that the missile threat was growing rapidly and weapons capable of reaching the United States could be developed or transferred secretly with little or no warning. Since then, the administration has used the North Korean threat as the rationale for the NMD program.

The administration has gone to great lengths to assure Moscow and Beijing that the planned defenses are to stop North Korean missiles, but not theirs. State Department officials told Moscow not to worry about a U.S. first strike using NMD for protection, because Russia could launch its missiles at America on warning of attack and pre-empt such a strike. This is shockingly dangerous in encouraging Russia to keep its missiles on hair-trigger alert even as its nuclear command and control system deteriorates. Moscow should be told that any talk of nuclear strikes in the post-Cold War period is absurd. The U.S. has no reason to attack Russia and Moscow has no reason to attack this country.

President Clinton's team also has been trying to convince Beijing that 100 U.S. interceptors will be no threat to China's 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles, because they will be defending only against North Korea. No one believes this, especially China, because it is patently ridiculous. Interceptors based in Alaska will be able to stop China's missiles as well as North Korea's. After all, a missile defense should protect against all missiles, wherever they are from.

Instead of sending envoys to plead with the Chinese communists to allow the U.S. to defend itself, the administration should simply state that every country has the right of self-defense, a national missile defense is by definition a defensive system that threatens no one, and neither Russia nor China should be concerned about it unless they are planning to launch missiles or use them to intimidate.

Which, of course, is exactly what Beijing has in mind. The mainland regime is building a huge force of medium-range missiles opposite Taiwan (already some 250), repeatedly threatens to destroy Taiwan if it does not surrender to mainland control, and warns the U.S. to stay away or risk losing American cities. Chinese generals already have twice threatened Los Angeles. But an effective NMD would make such threats meaningless, which is why China opposes missile defenses with such ferocity.

By claiming the only missile threat is from North Korea and a few other rogue states the Gore administration will be positioned to kill NMD as soon as North Korea, Iran and Iraq can be shown to be moderating (in exchange for cash and concessions). But the real reasons for a national missile defense are to protect against a miscalculation caused by collapsing Russian command and control, to prevent missile intimidation by China as it seeks to conquer Taiwan, and to stop missile blackmail by North Korea or any country that tries to limit U.S. freedom of action in world affairs.

A national missile defense is needed to protect the people and territory of this country against death and destruction from any source, but also to give the president the freedom of action he needs to defend U.S. interests and allies. The next president should comply with the will of Congress and order deployment of a national missile defense at the earliest possible date.

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

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