- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

The Pentagon's decision last week to delay three missile-defense tests confirmed how much the restrictions of the anachronistic 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty are constraining the Bush administration's anti-missile testing program. A Pentagon treaty-compliance review board had concluded that the tests would violate the ABM Treaty. As a result, one test will be altered, while the others have been postponed indefinitely.
In an ideal world, the Bush administration would jettison the ABM Treaty in a one-step process, exercising its treaty-sanctioned right to withdraw after providing six-months notice. This course of action has been advocated on these pages. An even better alternative, of course, would be to convince Russia to jointly and immediately abandon the treaty, an option Russian President Vladimir Putin is, unfortunately, unlikely to embrace today.
However, with the United States now at war as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the American homeland, the notion of an ideal world has been dealt a severe blow. In the meantime, Mr. Putin, who was the first world leader to telephone President Bush following the terrorists' attacks, has been playing an important role as a U.S. ally. Under these circumstances, now may not be the best moment for the United States to exercise its right to withdraw from the ABM Treaty provided the pursuit of national missile defense can resume without being constrained by the treaty. Recent events indicate that may be so.
Aware of Mr. Bush's determination to pursue national missile defense, Mr. Putin, appearing next to the U.S. president in Shanghai last month, announced that the two nations had an "understanding that we can reach agreements." His comment was widely interpreted to mean that the two men would likely reach an agreement soon that would permit the United States to go forward with its ambitious testing program. Four days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the testing delay, noting, "We have said we will not violate the treaty while it remains in force." However, one day after that, in an interview with the New York Times, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, suggested that Russia would drop its objections to the Pentagon's proposed testing plans. Other administration officials indicated to the Times that they were now operating under the assumption that Russia might agree to permit the tests. In return, Mr. Bush would postpone his decision to abandon the ABM Treaty.
It is important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal is the development and deployment of an effective national missile defense system at the earliest possible moment. Jettisoning the ABM Treaty has been viewed as an indispensable intermediate goal. That remains the case today. However, if Russia does not seek to obstruct the Pentagon's pursuit of the ultimate goal, delaying the eventual abandonment of the ABM Treaty may be a worthwhile bow to today's geopolitics.


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