Missile Shield--or Red Flag?

The global debate intensifies

It could mark the biggest overhaul of U.S. strategic policy since the height of the cold war. It threatens to ruffle the feathers of America's European allies, strain relations with Moscow, and deepen a diplomatic conflict with China. And no one knows if the technology involved--sensors and missile-seeking warheads--will do the job.

Even so, President George W. Bush is determined to press ahead with plans to build a costly land-, sea-, and possibly space-based missile-defense system. It is aimed at protecting the U.S. and its allies from an attack by a small number of nuclear missiles launched by so-called rogue states such as Iraq or North Korea. "We need a framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world," Bush declared on May 1 at the National Defense University in Washington. Ideally, Bush would like the first phase of his system to be up and running by the end of his first term, in 2004.

STRAW MAN? Bush's initiative is likely to intensify a fierce debate among America's friends and rivals alike over the effectiveness of a missile defense system. Up to now, leaders from Berlin to Seoul have raised red flags about missile defense because it clearly runs counter to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972. That treaty severely limited defensive weapons, enshrined the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, and kept nuclear peace for 30 years.

Russia and the Europeans have been deeply worried about throwing the treaty out. Beijing is particularly incensed about missile defense because it believes the Bush Administration is slyly eyeing China as the key raison d'être for the system rather than North Korea or Iraq. "Many Chinese are suspicious that the real target is China. For the rogue states you don't need such a fancy system," objects Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations at Beijing University. "China is definitely going to try to increase its strategic nuclear capabilities if the U.S. continues with this program," he adds. Administration officials deny China is the main reason for missile defense. But it's no secret that much of the Bush team sees China as a long-term threat to the U.S. "We don't want anyone, definitely including the Chinese, to be able to threaten limited strikes against the U.S.," says a senior Administration official. Coincidentally, on May 2, the Pentagon said that it would review all military contacts with China on a case-by-case basis.

With all the overseas opposition and the major technical risks, why is Bush so determined to go forward? Dig into the motives of the Administration and you'll see a powerful mix of opportunism and idealism at work. For Bush and the Republican right wing, missile defense is a goal that dates back to the era of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. That popular President proposed a bold blueprint for space-based weapons to protect the U.S. from thousands of missiles from the Soviet Union. Technical problems kept the project from taking off, but many Republican hard-liners think that Reagan's Star Wars initiative helped break the Soviet Union economically and spur the changes that ended the cold war and triggered the collapse of what Reagan called the Evil Empire. Ever since then, building a defense shield over America has been a big item on the conservative agenda. "This is a litmus [test] of loyalty to Saint Ronald Reagan," says Lawrence J. Korb, vice-president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Reagan Administration Pentagon official, who believes missile defense systems aren't cost effective. "Bush has been under tremendous pressure to do something."

Beyond politics, there may be big gains for defense contractors. The project could cost from $80 billion to $120 billion over 25 years, according to government sources. Companies such as Boeing, Raytheon, and TRW have already been awarded contracts that could total $13 billion.

Perhaps the most important driving force for missile defense, however, is that the Administration is filled with true believers. Officials such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, are convinced that a shield is crucial to protecting the U.S. A panel chaired by Rumsfeld in 1998 estimated that Iran and North Korea could have nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them from afar in just a few years. If the U.S. puts up a shield, Administration officials contend, foes might pause before launching.

Of course, it could take more than a decade to develop an effective system. In the shorter term, the Administration hopes to use existing technologies to intercept enemy missiles right after takeoff. The Administration has earmarked $5 billion for research in 2002, but that is expected to grow to about $10 billion annually by 2003.

Even more critical than technical work, however, could be the diplomacy needed to implement missile defense without touching off a 21st Century version of the cold war. Bush is sending top envoys to Europe, Japan, and South Korea to explain his views. He's also courting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, long an opponent of any initiative that could damage the ABM treaty.

Indeed, Bush is appealing to Putin to join with him to design a global security framework that would replace the ABM treaty. "Russia and the United States should work together to develop a new foundation for world peace and security in the 21st Century," Bush declared. To sweeten the deal, he plans to unilaterally cut America's nuclear arsenal, which now stands at about 7,000 warheads.

Putin has said Russia would be prepared to slash its arsenal from its level of 6,000 warheads to 1,500 as part of an arms agreement. Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Strategic Studies Center, says Putin may now insist that Russia hold on to a greater number of warheads than the U.S. in return for agreeing to an American missile defense system to go ahead.

The Administration's efforts to engage Russia on missile defense are winning plaudits in Europe. "This is important. We don't want arms races," says Karsten D. Voigt, coordinator for German-American cooperation in the German foreign ministry. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is also reacting receptively to the Bush proposal. That's key, since Britain could be the site of radars necessary for the system.

NERVOUS NEIGHBORS. Bush's biggest diplomatic challenges will come from Asia. China is likely to fight the missile defense initiative fiercely because it worries that the U.S. may use it to defend Taiwan and thus encourage its independence. And the prospect of rising tensions in the region makes America's allies, Japan and South Korea, nervous. "China is right next door, so Japan must be careful about antagonizing its biggest neighbor," says Matake Kamiya, an associate professor at Japan's National Defense Academy. Nonetheless, Japan is committed to spending up to $250 million on a six-year research effort with Washington on a local missile shield.

Seoul is more concerned. "The scheme will antagonize both North Korea and China," worries Lee Jong Seok, a senior security expert at Sejong Institute, an independent security think tank in Seoul. "It will only touch off a nasty arms race in Asia," he adds.

So far, the Bush Administration does not seem worried about that possibility. Indeed, Bush's initiative could be a ringing challenge to China not to test American supremacy in the Pacific. The implicit American threat: We can outspend you in any arms race you wish to launch. Meanwhile, Administration officials assert that the government has a moral obligation to use whatever technology it can to protect innocent American civilians. "We must seek security based on more than the grim premise that we can destroy those who seek to destroy us," Bush declares. Perhaps. But the debate on how wise--let alone how moral--this new system is will go on for years.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Mark Clifford in Hong Kong, Paul Starobin in Moscow, Rose Brady in New York, and bureau reports

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