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Published: Tuesday, 12/18/2001

Building on a faulty premise

Regardless of whatever the official party line might be, President Bush is withdrawing the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty for one basic reason: because he can. Not that discarding the arms-control treaty serves any serious foreign policy objective, but simply because the pact gets in the way of the President's domestic political plans.

Mr. Bush seems hell-bent on deploying, by the time the next presidential election rolls around in 2004, an array of new and expensive weaponry he can claim is a national missile defense system, thereby fulfilling one of his key campaign promises in 2000.

National Missile Defense is, after all, the kind of thing that rallies the conservative troops. Unfortunately, it is an unproven high-tech fantasy in the same vein as Ronald Reagan's “Star Wars” plan, which entailed shooting down incoming enemy warheads with laser beams. That concept cost $60 billion to test but never worked. So far, the latest variation has succeeded in only two of four preliminary flight tests - which the Pentagon admits were rigged to minimize failure.

This is a shaky foundation for a chain of faulty premises. The latest of these, articulated by Mr. Bush last week, is that the missile system is needed because it would protect the United States from terrorism.

The President claims that “the terrorists, and some of those who support them, seek the ability to deliver death and destruction to our doorstep via missile,” but a good many international and defense experts say the danger comes from far simpler weapons, as was so dramatically illustrated on Sept. 11.

Indeed, many Americans wonder how a defense establishment caught flat-footed by decidedly low-tech airliner hijackings could hope to protect the entire country with a complicated system that would require the scientific equivalent of shooting down a bullet with another bullet in outer space.

All these realities are aside from the question of how we would pay for a missile defense system, especially now that Mr. Bush's tax cut has guaranteed the government won't be taking in a couple of trillion dollars over the next decade.

Mr. Bush failed to mount a persuasive argument that the ABM treaty is not continuing to fulfill its purpose in limiting the arms race between the United States and the old Soviet Union because, over the course of 30 years, it clearly has.

The argument that the treaty is invalid because the Soviet Union no longer exists also is a weak one, since the successor government of Russia is perfectly willing to keep the treaty in place and abide by it.

To cast aside a useful and enduring international agreement, in order to clear the way for a political pipe dream that hasn't been built, probably won't work, and is too expensive, doesn't make any sense. But such is the state of public policy emanating from the White House these days.



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