By leading Democratic opposition to the Persian Gulf War, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn had his hawk's feathers singed. Now, the Georgia Democrat may have found a strategy to regain his stature as his party's preeminent voice on defense policy.
Nunn is leading the charge for a new antimissile defense system for the U. S.--even if it requires renegotiating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. With U. S.-Soviet tensions ebbing, many fellow Democrats think this is the wrong time to inflame Moscow over ABMs. Expanding missile defenses, says committee member Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), "would leave us mired in the mud of the cold war."
But on July 17, the committee voted 16-4 to back Nunn's plan to deploy an antimissile system at Grand Forks, N. D.--the only U. S. site allowed by the ABM treaty. The measure also directs the President to open talks with Moscow to amend the ABM pact, a step that could permit additional antimissile sites and orbiting missile-launch sensors.
Liberals find the whole idea scary, but Nunn and the committee's ranking Republican, John Warner of Virginia, beg to differ. They contend that a new ground-based antimissile system is needed to shield the U. S. against accidental or unauthorized launches by the Soviets, or nuclear terror strikes by a future Saddam Hussein. The public fascination with Patriot missiles blasting Iraqi Scuds out of the sky makes the idea politically appealing. "People want to go into the election next year showing they're in favor of some kind of missile defense system," says one Democratic Senate staffer.
Nunn's idea is likely to pass the full Senate--perhaps in watered-down form--because it offers something for almost everyone. For Democrats opposed to tinkering with the ABM treaty, it seeks to assure compliance with the pact through 1996. To woo pro-Star Wars Republicans such as Warner, there's a promise to renegotiate the accord, deploy ABMs at several more sites, and fund research for the space-based interceptors called "Brilliant Pebbles."
The House is another story. House Armed Services Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) says it's premature to rewrite the ABM treaty. And the more liberal members of his committee will want their chairman to take a tough line against the Nunn measure in a House-Senate conference this fall. The House has already voted to slash Strategic Defense Initiative spending and kill Brilliant Pebbles. "This will kick up a big fuss," predicts a House Democratic staffer.
HANDY MAN. Arms-control advocates also are distressed by Nunn's move. "Why would a country fire ballistic missiles at the U. S., which would certainly provoke a devastating counterattack?" says Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Assn. Adds John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists: "The threat is totally hypothetical."
Even the White House is a bit queasy at the thought of the Senate fiddling with the ABM pact just as President Bush heads for Moscow to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The Soviets have warned that they would walk away from START if the U. S. breaks the ABM agreement.
But this discomfort is likely to be temporary. The Administration remains committed to deployment of space-based missile defenses. Ultimately, that will require rewriting the ABM treaty. When the time comes, Bush will find Sam Nunn a handy man to have on his side. Meantime, Nunn's proposal for a new antimissile system serves to remind conservative Democrats that notwithstanding his Persian Gulf lapse, he's still his party's leading pro-defense voice.