- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

The emerging conventional wisdom about President Bush is that he can be determinedly principled with respect to certain "big" issues and ruthlessly pragmatic when it comes to compromising about smaller ones. This explains, we are told, why he stood his ground on tax cuts but, for example, decided to bail out on military training at Vieques.

The question now urgently arising is: Will Mr. Bush's oft-stated pledge to deploy missile defenses prove to be one of the big issues, to which he will remain steadfastly committed? Or does he see it as one of those policy areas where he can safely agree to compromises that would effectively eviscerate his commitment to defend the American people, their forces overseas and allies "at the earliest possible time?"

This is hardly an academic question. If Mr. Bush sees missile defense as the moral equivalent of tax relief, he needs to start making at once no less concerted an effort for the former than he did for the latter.

After all, the battle lines are now being clearly drawn. This was particularly evident when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was confronted during a hearing on June 21 before the Senate Armed Services Committee with the sort of disciplined Democratic opposition to missile defense last seen in 1998. In the run-up to that year's congressional elections, the then-minority caucus succeeded on three different occasions in sustaining exactly the 40 votes needed to filibuster legislation making it U.S. policy to deploy an effective, limited national missile defense as soon as technologically possible. (The next year, essentially the same bill passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities and was signed into law by President Clinton.)

The committee's new chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, ended Thursday's proceedings by pointedly warning Mr. Rumsfeld that "you may find some of your priorities …for little things like missile defense, changed" in favor of greater spending in areas like quality of life, morale, pay and benefits and retention."

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man Mr. Bush concluded he could "trust" after their 90-minute meeting in Slovenia, is doing what he can to inflame opposition here and abroad to U.S. missile defense deployments. After their summit, he has repeated earlier warnings that Moscow would respond to such an initiative by retaining nuclear missiles that would otherwise be retired and/or by putting multiple warheads aboard new missiles that were supposed to carry just one. Such threats of an arms race, no matter how implausible (because of Russia's economic situation) or incredible (given the lack of any compelling strategic rationale for such behavior in the post-Cold War world), are having the predictable effect of emboldening the critics.

So, too, are indications that Mr. Bush is really seeking a deal with Mr. Putin. The latest indicator to that effect is a report published by Peggy Noonan in Monday's Wall Street Journal based on an interview with President Bush last week. This generally very astute observer observes, "One might infer and perhaps should infer from the president's comments that he will not attempt to tear the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty up, but instead will move for an amendment that would allow further missile testing." Could Ms. Noonan have completely misread Mr. Bush?

Or is she correctly discerning the migration of missile defense from a big issue to a compromisable small one?

The only problem with that idea is that, if Mr. Bush compromises on missile defense whether by acquiescing to Senate Democrats' budget games, by quailing in the face of threats from Russia (or, for that matter, from China or North Korea) or by trying to negotiate amendments to the ABM Treaty with the likes of Mr. Putin he can forget about actually deploying protection against ballistic missile attack. It won't happen on his watch, unless someplace we care about is destroyed by one.

Here's the rub: The ABM Treaty expressly required each of the two parties the United States and the Soviet Union (a country that, by the way, ceased to exist a decade ago) "not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such a defense." To ensure that such a "base" was not established, the treaty also obliged each party "not to develop, test or deploy ABM systems or components which are sea-based, air- based, space-based, or mobile land-based."

Senators, Russians and allied leaders who insist that the United States must not depart from the ABM Treaty understand full well the practical effect of this arrangement. As long as the United States foreswears sea-, air- and space-based missile defenses in particular, it will be unable to develop, to say nothing of deploy, effective anti-missile systems. And it is impossible to "amend" a treaty whose sole purpose is to preclude national missile defenses so as to allow such defenses to be tested efficiently and deployed quickly particularly if our Russian negotiating partners remain adamantly opposed to our doing so.

In short, Mr. Bush must establish at once where he stands on defending the United States, its forward deployed forces and allies. If Mr. Bush has not just been paying lip service to the need for missile defenses, and remains determined to deploy them, he has no choice but to get started. Only by displaying the kind of resolve he showed on tax cuts refusing to take "No" for an answer, mobilizing his base and the country at large and not allowing himself to be stymied or slow-rolled will he be able to begin to provide the needed protection, first from the sea.

If Mr. Bush does not take that course of action, however, all other things being equal big issue or no he is going soon to find himself utterly hamstrung by those who oppose him politically and strategically. What will be compromised as a result, however, will not be merely his credibility, but the security of his nation and its people.

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

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