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Bush's Big ABM Blunder

With anything resembling a workable missile-defense system still years away, the Administration had no reason to shred the treaty

By Stan Crock

If you listen closely enough, you can already hear the chickens coming home to roost on President Bush's decision last month to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Oh, he fulfilled a 2000 campaign promise, all right. By tearing up the treaty, Bush is free to build his beloved missile-defense shield. But he'll pay a high price. Several key components of the technology are already in trouble, so actual deployment remains a long way off. Plus, the Bush team made some unnecessary concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to mute his response to the treaty's demise. Bush's decision to withdraw looks far more political and theological than thoughtful.

That's not exactly a shock. The hard-core Star Warriors in the Bush Administration have always seemed to care more about gutting the ABM pact than about actually building missile defense. They wanted to be rid of the treaty, which limits antimissile defense to a single, land-based system.

"I DON'T KNOW."

  Still, when I asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last month when we could expect a system to be deployed, he conceded that he had no idea. "I have so much respect for what I don't know," he said. While the Clinton Administration tried to stay within the confines of the ABM Treaty, Rumsfeld, by contrast, is looking at a variety of land-, sea-, air-, and space-based systems. "We have folks looking at it in a very fresh way," he said. "Where that will lead us, I don't know."

Rumsfeld may have no choice but to investigate new angles, given the performance of some key research programs. On Dec. 14, the day after Bush made his announcement that he wanted the U.S. to withdraw from the treaty, the Pentagon killed the Navy's Area Ballistic Missile Defense Program. The reason: Costs had increased 50%, to $3 billion, and it was more than two years behind schedule. Some Star Warriors had hoped that it could be the basis for a quickly deployed, sea-based national missile-defense system. No such luck.

That's not the only troubled part of the research effort. Congressional appropriators recently slashed funding for a critical space-based infrared sensor system, citing concerns over its performance and rising costs. The Republican-dominated House wanted to end the program, but the Senate balked. The compromise was to cut funding to $250 million from $395 million for fiscal 2002.

NOT EXACTLY GOOD NEWS.

  The space-based laser took a hit, too, because lawmakers thought it wasn't ready for prime time. Its appropriation shrank from $170 million to $50 million -- just enough to terminate the program. You could construe such cuts as good news -- that the Administration and Congress, despite their fervid support for Star Wars, aren't blindly backing problem programs, and that they're willing to go back to the drawing board and see what works. But funding cuts are also going to delay deployment even longer -- raising the question of what the urgency was in giving notice of withdrawal in the first place.

Even more incredible, Bush ceded a lot of ground to Russia to buy its acquiescence in this premature move. The President had adamantly opposed any kind of accord on nuclear-weapons reductions that would accompany a missile defense. But at a press conference before the Crawford (Tex.) summit with Putin, Bush backed off that stance. "If we need to write it down on a piece of paper, I'll be glad to do that," the President declared.

What's more, the Bush team is now willing to talk about giving Russia a seat at the NATO table. Not everyone regards that as a good idea. Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank, worries that in some instances a Russian role in NATO decision-making could "amount to a veto."

PERILS OF IMPATIENCE.

  Were such concessions necessary? Going into Putin's meeting with Bush, if the Russians had faced a choice between giving the U.S. some leeway on testing a missile-defense system nowhere near deployment and withdrawal from the treaty, they surely would have picked the former. Why didn't the Bush Administration press that advantage instead?

Some people, those who disagree with Simes, would argue that giving the Russians more clout in NATO councils and having the nuclear reductions put in writing are good ideas. Valid points. The problem is that the Administration got so little in return. It should have been more patient. If this is how the Bush team deals from strength, good thing it's not dealing from weakness.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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