Commentary: Why The Gop Has Star Wars In Its Eyes Again

The Evil Empire is dead. Washington is tightening its belt. And an Oklahoma City-style bombing is more of a threat today than incoming ballistic missiles.

Yet Star Wars--Ronald Reagan's grand vision of a high-tech shield against Soviet nukes--is back and thriving in the post-cold-war era. House-Senate budget conferees are poised to pump nearly $1 billion next year into a national missile-defense system, $500 million more than President Clinton wants. The money, to fund new ground-based weapons, satellite sensors dubbed "brilliant eyes," and possibly space lasers, is a downpayment on a program that could cost an additional $47 billion to complete by 2016, the Congressional Budget Office says.

The saga of Star Wars' resurrection shows the resilience of high-concept ideas in Washington--no matter how often they're ridiculed. And the criticisms of Star Wars are endless: It won't work. It's pure pork. It will undermine arms-control efforts to deal with the most serious threat--Russia's thousands of warheads. And the country can ill afford it.

But philosophy, politics, and profits have dovetailed to propel the project forward. With a stream of disturbing reports as their ammo, Reaganites in conservative think tanks have publicized the threat from such rogue states as North Korea and Iraq. Republicans, relying on polls and focus groups, think voters will go ballistic if Democrats block efforts to provide a defense blanket. Meanwhile, arms makers such as TRW Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp. could reap a bonanza from one of the Pentagon's few growth areas.

"WACKOS." That's quite a turnabout for Star Wars, which dropped off the radar screen when the GOP left the White House. From a peak of $1.9 billion in 1992, funding plummeted to about $400 million after President Clinton took office. The Clintonites emphasized guarding against short-range missiles, such as Scuds used in the Persian Gulf War. "A Star Wars missile defense is not a priority in an austere budget environment," declares one top Administration mfficial.

The campaign to revive Star Wars began in 1994, when stalwarts concluded the White House was doing little about the proliferation of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons by emerging states. "Wackos are getting these dangerous weapons and the means to deliver them," says Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a Pentagon official during the Reagan Administration. In 1994, Gaffney helped assemble more than 80 conservative Star Wars supporters who issued a broadside warning of the new dangers.

At the same time, the GOP decided Star Wars was an irresistible political issue, and they included support for such a system in the Contract With America. "Defense and foreign policy were seen as areas of particular vulnerability for the Clinton Administration," says GOP pollster J. Steven Wagner.

Pork politics was also a key factor. At a House hearing in January, Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif.) expressed what was on the minds of many lawmakers who represented struggling defense contractors. A national missile-defense system "is critical to the industrial base of my district," she said.

Still, there were rifts between the think-tankers and the pols. The Star Warriors' game plan would pave the way to restore Reagan's original vision: repudiate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limits strategic defenses; build satellite sensors and ground- and space-based interceptors; and deploy them quickly. Because the Administration is focusing on defense against short-range rockets rather than faster long-range weapons, if North Korea launches a missile, "a captain on a cruiser can defend Tokyo, but not Seattle," gripes Henry F. Cooper, a former Pentagon official. "That's stupid."

The pols had a different concern: They couldn't line up enough votes for a comprehensive Star Wars scheme. So Republicans proposed something far more modest, aimed at defense against a limited attack from, say, Libya. Initially, the components would be just ground-based weapons and space sensors. Space-based weapons might be added later.

DEPLOYMENT NOW? The thorniest issue was the ABM Treaty. Arms-control supporters argue that more funding for Star Wars would provoke a nationalistic Russia to reject sharp reductions in nuclear weapons under the proposed START II Treaty. They also contend that smuggled bombs are more of a worry than missiles. "Ryder trucks are a much better way of getting your point across," says arms-control expert Jack Mendelsohn.

Such arguments carried weight with Democrats in the Senate, which increased funding for Star Wars--but for development, not deployment. Now, the GOP has two choices: With a compromise bill such as the Senate's, they can pass legislation the President will sign. Or they could opt simply to embarrass the Democrats by adopting the tough House version, which would prompt a filibuster or Clinton veto. "There is virtue in making sure we all understand who wants to defend America and who doesn't," says one GOP aide.

Either way, Star Wars advocates and their supporters on Capitol Hill believe they're in control. The GOP is counting on a more solidly Republican Congress--and possibly a Republican White House--in 1996 to finish the job. If they're right, the question isn't whether Star Wars will be built, but how fast.


REAGANITE HARD-LINERS Now ensconced in Washington think tanks, ex-Reagan Administration officials such as former Strategic Defense Initiative Chief Henry Cooper have issued a stream of reports and studies detailing new ballistic-missile threats to the U.S. and justifying a missile-defense system.

REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMEN A national missile-defense system was part of the House GOP's Contract With America. And Republicans in both chambers, such as Christopher Cox of California, are pushing for more funding and deployment of a scaled-back Star Wars program--risking veto by President Clinton.

DEFENSE CONTRACTORS With the Pentagon's budget under tight constraints, missile defense is one of the few growth areas. Weapons makers such as CEO Joseph T. Gorman of TRW, along with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others, could reap a windfall from contracts for the system, which could cost $48 billion by 2016.


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