Tuesday, November 6, 2001

The U.S. president meets in an unusual location with his Kremlin counterpart. Amidst high expectations of a summit breakthrough, the latter offers the former a totally transformed relationship between their two countries, prominently featuring massive reductions in offensive nuclear arms. There is only one catch: The American leader must abandon his commitment to defend his people against the threat of ballistic missile attack.

Of course, the date was October 1986, not November 2001; the venue, Reykjavik, Iceland, not Crawford, Texas. The American president was Ronald Reagan, not George W. Bush. And the man from Moscow was Mikhail Gorbachev, not Vladimir Putin.

Yet, if press reports informed by State Department leaks are to be believed, basically the same play is going to be run by the Kremlin team in the upcoming summit at President Bush’s Texas ranch as Mr. Reagan confronted 15 years ago in Iceland.

Now, as then, the diplomats of Foggy Bottom are encouraging the president to believe he has a historic opportunity to secure a breakthrough with the old Cold War enemy. Echoed by an international press corps and foreign policy elite that have always viewed with alarm the idea that the United States might actually depart from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order to have missile defenses prohibited by that accord, the State Department is pressing Mr. Bush to make a deal.

Under the terms of this deal, Mr. Bush would presumably have to dispense, for the time being at least, with any further talk about the ABM Treaty being “outdated, antiquated and useless” let alone “dangerous.”

Despite his repeated assertions that the United States has to “move beyond” that accord in order to deploy effective anti-missile systems “at the earliest possible time,” he would have to agree not to deploy any missile defenses for some period and to leave intact the ABM Treaty’s prohibitions on such deployments.

In exchange, the Russians would agree somehow to modify or at least to ignore other provisions of the ABM Treaty that also prohibit development and testing of promising U.S. defensive technologies notably, sea-, air- and space-based anti-missile weapons and sensors. The Kremlin would also throw in an agreement to cut their strategic offensive forces to around 1,500 weapons, provided the U.S. undertook to do roughly the same.

Now, it is far from clear just how this would work. Of course, the Russians and the Soviets before them have been adept at ignoring provisions of treaties that prove inconvenient. (In fact, such a practice has allowed the former U.S.S.R. to deploy a full-up territorial anti-missile defense prohibited by the ABM Treaty). But, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made clear, Americans don’t violate treaties.

Changing the treaty to eliminate its constraints on development and testing, however, sounds a lot like the sort of line-in, line-out amending process that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has correctly, and repeatedly, said could not be used with the ABM Treaty. If, instead of adopting the new “strategic framework” that dispenses with the ABM Treaty altogether sought by the new administration since it came to office, the Bush team winds up effectively amending it, the unamended parts will continue to constitute unacceptable impediments to the actual realization of protection against missile attack.

It is predictable, moreover, that such changes to an existing treaty will be seen by the Democratic Senate as requiring its advice and consent.

Under that body’s present leadership, such an exercise would surely translate into an affirmation of the prohibitions on deployment that would be left intact hardly a legislative history a president committed to defending his people would welcome.

In addition, preserving any part of the ABM Treaty would have the effect of establishing unequivocally that the Russians are a party to that accord. This would give them legal standing they do not currently enjoy (the 1972 accord having been signed with the U.S.S.R., not Russia).

It would also confer legitimacy on the Kremlin’s future efforts to veto U.S. deployments of which they do not approve. At the very least, such an arrangement flies in the face of all President Bush’s exhortations that the “Cold War is over” and that bilateral arms control treaties (whether governing defensive or offensive forces) are not appropriate in light of the changed nature of the Russo-American relationship.

The rejection by Ronald Reagan of Mr. Gorbachev’s offer to ban all nuclear weapons if only the Gipper would give up on his Strategic Defense Initiative not only defined Mr. Reagan’s presidency. Despite the Bronx cheers Mr. Reagan got from critics at home and abroad for having missed the opportunity Reykjavik presented for “peace in our time,” even Soviet leaders subsequently acknowledged that his determination to stay the course on missile defense helped catalyze the unraveling of the Evil Empire.

Today, George W. Bush faces an eerily similar test of leadership.

To be sure, there will be those at the editorial boards of the New York Times and The Washington Post, in the salons of Cambridge and in allied capitals who will revile him for rejecting Mr. Putin’s deal even though it would ineluctably have the effect of perpetuating America’s vulnerability to missile attack, rather than move us in the direction of ensuring it is ended once and for all.

Still, protecting the American people against ballistic missile threats is what Mr. Bush said he would do when he ran for office. It is what he has said since his election he was committed to accomplishing. And it is what he has forcefully declared is even more necessary in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

This is President Bush’s Reykjavik moment. And as with that of his predecessor, a lot more is riding on the decision about missile defense than simply the credibility of the president’s word.

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

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