At the press conference George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin held after their meeting Sunday in Genoa, the career-KGB-officer-turned-Kremlin-leader announced that he and his American counterpart have reached an understanding that “the issue [of] offensive arms and [the] issue of defensive arms will be discussed as a set.”
Although President Bush was clearly delighted by this announcement, there is a considerable danger that what Mr. Putin has in mind is less a “set” of discussions that will clear the way for American missile defenses than a “set”-up designed to ensure that goal is never realized.
The problem is that Mr. Bush appears to have opened the door not to “discussions” but to negotiations of a kind he has, heretofore, wisely eschewed. They not only hold out the prospect that the United States will again once again make the mistake of portraying the size, composition and status of its nuclear arsenal as things that can usefully be — indeed, need to be — defined in bilateral agreements with Moscow. (To his credit, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, warned on Sunday talk shows that the result could be too-deep cuts in U.S. nuclear forces.)
What is more, negotiating with the Russians on missile defense assures that, at best, there will be needless and undesirable delay in the development and deployment of missile defenses. After all, unless otherwise stated, the presumption will be that the primary impediment to such activity — the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty — is going to remain in force until such time as a new, substitute arrangement is jointly agreed and promulgated. Predictably, Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat, and an inveterate opponent of the deployment of U.S. missile defenses, greeted the Bush-Putin announcement by declaring it implies “the administration won’t break out of the Treaty anytime soon.”
Worse even than untoward delay in the deployment of missile defenses is the prospect that the negotiating “set” Mr. Putin has in mind will enable him to interfere with U.S. choices about the type, timing and robustness of American anti-missile systems. This could translate into a de facto veto over the sort of “layered” and “effective” defense President Bush has repeatedly pledged to field for the American people, their armed forces deployed overseas and their allies.
Either of these outcomes, to say nothing of a combination of the two, would probably prove deadly for the effort to field U.S. missile defenses “anytime soon.” The job of getting the funding required to prepare and deploy competent systems will only get harder as the midterm and 2004 presidential elections approach. Mr. Bush’s political opponents who at the moment perceive no risk to giving preference to protecting the ABM Treaty rather than the nation will be emboldened by any delay.
Some, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, have already made known their determination to deny President Bush funds for developmental and testing activities deemed incompatible with the ABM Treaty. As long as Mr. Bush permits the Treaty to bind the United States, he will find himself unable to ready the most militarily efficacious and cost-effective anti-missile systems possible.
The only hope that the United States may yet avoid the trap being “set” by the Russians for its missile defense program is that, after the Bush-Putin meeting, Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice briefed the press about the American understanding of the “discussions” to which her boss agreed. According to the New York Times, Miss. Rice “made clear … that discussions will not be formal negotiations over detailed arms-control limits. Rather, she said, they will be more like consultations among allies in which each side simply tells the other what programs they have in mind. ‘It is our view that these are more like defense planning talks, that you look at what is required for each side to insure itself.’ “
Such a formulation has the advantage of being consistent with Mr. Bush’s longstanding approach to these matters. It would amount to consultations that would neither tarry nor disrupt an accelerated missile defense development and test program. It also would enable the United States to adjust its strategic offensive forces as we see fit, not according to a force structure that roughly mirrors whatever strategic arsenal Moscow can afford.
Of course, by engaging in discussions with the Russians that are not, repeat not, negotiations, and that hew to the American agenda, the United States can also undercut opposition at home and abroad to Mr. Bush’s missile defense initiative. It will be hard for the Carl Levins of the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate and left-wing allied leaders to be holier than the Kremlin when it comes to opposing the ABM Treaty’s demise.
Yet, it is for precisely these reasons that the Bush team would be wise to expect the Russians to try to spring their trap. Within hours of the Genoa press conference, Vladimir Putin was making known his view that there had, in fact, been “no principle breakthrough” on the missile defense question. When Miss Rice visits Moscow this week, she will doubtless be sharply pressed to accede to the Kremlin’s terms of reference for the upcoming meetings lest bilateral ties be “set” back, a body-blow to the image of competence and savoir faire that President Bush is working to cultivate.
Mr. Bush can spare himself and the program for defending America in which he has properly invested so much personal political capital considerable aggravation, if not worse, by promptly affirming that Miss Rice’s characterization of the “way ahead” tracks with his own. He should say that it is still the case, notwithstanding the undertakings at Genoa, that the United States will be engaged in activities inconsistent with the ABM Treaty “within a matter of months, not years.”
In short, notice needs to be given to Vladimir Putin, the allies and Senate Democrats: The only thing that is really “set” is Mr. Bush’s mind with respect to fulfilling the law of the land that requires him to deploy effective U.S. missile defenses “as soon as technologically possible.”
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.