In the next few months President Clinton must decide whether to go ahead with construction of a National Missile Defense (NMD), an anti-ballistic system that would supposedly shield the United States from "rogue" missile attacks.
The program Clinton is considering is budgeted at $60 billion. George W. Bush proposes a $240 billion plan. Neither plan includes the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) promoted by President Reagan in the 1980s. The US spent $70 billion on that fantasy and, as informed scientific opinion predicted at the time, it did not work.
Seventy billion dollars down the tubes, gleefully advocated and spent by conservatives famous for opposing government programs for health care, environmental protection, affordable housing, schools. But there's even more hypocrisy behind this proposal for missile defense.
The supposed need for such a system is based on a worst-case "what if" scenario: What if Iran, Iraq, Libya, or North Korea develop workable missile systems and nuclear bombs? On other issues, legislators demand evidence that a problem exists and there is a solution. For example, when it comes to proposals to lessen global warming (a far greater threat to the American people than a missile-launched bomb), politicians demand definitive data. Yet, when it comes to missile defense, they are willing to squander billions on the basis of "what if" paranoia and technological fantasy.
You don't need to be a missile scientist to understand why the NMD proposal is absurd. It's cheaper and easier to design and build an offensive weapon than it is to build one for defense. Let's accept the Pentagon's fantasy and say a "rogue nation" decides to drop missiles on the USA. Don't expect these missiles to come with flags waving when they drop out of the sky. They'll be accompanied by high-tech decoys designed specifically to confuse and stymie the American defense. Knocking out a test missile when you know that it's coming is difficult but not impossible, experts say. Knocking out missiles designed to confuse the defense is a challenge of a different magnitude. And it cannot be tested except in a real missile attack.
But why would the leader of a so-called "rogue nation" try and bomb the US when they know we have the nuclear capacity to totally obliterate it? The "rogue nations" do not threaten the continental US -- at least not from the air. They may, as enemies have done in the past, blow-up civilian airliners and bomb American overseas installations (actions which mirror what Americans have done to them). The NMD is not designed to protect us from that kind of terrorism.
What NMD is designed to defend against are missile attacks from terrorist groups who cannot immediately be tied to one nation. And the most dangerous rogue terrorists have been Americans, like Timothy McVeigh. The danger doesn't come from ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. It comes from nutcake haters carrying suitcase bombs or driving vans packed with explosives.
NMD is opposed not only by Russia and China, but by the Pope, the Canadians and our European allies. Should Clinton go ahead with NMD, all existing weapon and disarmament agreements will be out the window. (Condoleeza Rice, George W. Bush's principle foreign policy advisor, has called the existing ABM [anti-ballistic missile] Treaty "a historic artifact" and wants NMD to be a national priority.) A new arms race will begin. Instead of disarmament, Russia, China and the smaller nuclear powers will feel compelled to expand their nuclear arsenals. And there will be no international framework to prevent the "rogue nations" from developing their own ICBM-based nuclear arsenals.
The NMD will diminish, not assure, international stability and undermine our own national security. But the fact is, NMD has nothing to do with national security. Plain and simple it's a boondoggle for the defense industry, a return on investment for the millions of dollars the industry gives to candidates of both major parties. It's also a high-priced make-work program for scientists and engineers. We can -- and should -- put these professionals to work developing and building high-tech and ecologically-safe infrastructure projects. But guess what? The politicians pushing hardest for NMD oppose spending tax money on any public project except the military. By squandering taxpayer money on this military boondoggle, conservative warhawks, following the Reagan strategy, hope to stymie government programs for liberal projects.
Why then does Clinton support NMD? He and his new Democrats benefit from defense industry dollars. (In 1999, the two major parties and their candidates shared $4.9 million in defense industry campaign contributions). More to the point, Clinton has based his political success on stealing (then moderating) Republican programs. The GOP wants big-budget Star Wars; Clinton undermines their advocacy by offering Star Wars Lite.
However much money Clinton/Gore or Bush spend on NMD the fallout is the same. NMD is a provocation that will anger our allies, destabilize global politics, and undermine international law.
The President is charged with making the country safe -- an awesome responsibility. But NMD increases the potential for conflict; it does not make our country safe (as, e.g., housing for the homeless, money for mental health, and a liveable wage for non- defense industry workers would). The defense industry is lobbying hard for the NMD initiative. The voice of the public needs to be heard.
Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.