The Dumbest Idea of the Bush Administration:

Missile Defense or Missile Delusions?
New Post-September 11th Introduction

This article was prepared last summer, before the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  For the first time in almost two centuries, the central homeland of the United States has proven vulnerable to outside attack.  To many inside and outside of the Bush administration, this has only strengthened the resolve to seek a missile defense system.  But if a missile defense system had been totally operative on September 11th, it could have done nothing to prevent that attack from succeeding. Actually the attack of September 11th really shows how pointless and counterproductive the quest for a missile defense system is to the very real problem of homeland defense.

At the risk of seeming arrogant, as introduction to the issue, I will repeat three crucial points made in the original version of this article.

1. the current American military is poorly configured to protect the American homeland

Its the Pentagon's dirty little secret that the real mission of the Department of Defense is not defending American citizens and the territorial United States.  More than 90% of America's vast military power is for the purpose of projecting American power into other parts of the world, not to defend North America.  The Department of Offense would actually be a better moniker for the Pentagon.  In one sense it is actually refreshing to hear the Bush administration talking about protecting American lives here at home rather than putting American men and women in jeopardy overseas.

2. missile defense will eat up resources better spent on more conventional forms of homeland defense

Any missile defense that would have any real chance of actually working would certainly cost hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions. Even the Pentagon is leery of the huge expense.

3. terrorists or "rogue" nations will prefer non-missile forms of delivery systems

There are other ways of delivering such weapons than missiles--offshore non-ballistic projectiles, car bombs, suitcase bombers, etc.  20th century terrorists have been quite ingenious in finding ways to blow up things.  One just needs to remember Oklahoma City or the World Trade Towers.  A determined opponent possessing weapons of mass destruction, some fishing trawlers and/or other simple off-shore platforms, and/or a relative handful of suicide bombers could almost certainly hit the U.S. with several weapons of mass destruction in a short period of time.  Smaller states or renegade groups without massive resources might actually prefer this option.
 

Original Introduction

If you have visited a few of the other pages in this web site you have probably been able to infer that I am not a supporter of the Bush administration, or the Republican Party, or the conservative ideology.  I have many philosophical differences with the Bush administration.  But none are as deep or abiding as the anathema I have for Bush's concept of national security and his plan for missile defense.  Bush's missile defense plan is not only his dumbest idea, it is his most dangerous idea.  It is based on delusional thinking that will almost certainly bring a return to the old Cold War reality where every new international crisis put our lives, our children's lives, and our whole civilization in jeopardy.

If you are unfamiliar with the details of the Bush missile defense idea, my student Riyu Sun Hye's web project, The Bush Administration and its MD Plan, summarizes the plan.  In this essay I am less interested in the technical issues than in the basic concept of missile defense and its impact on the nuclear arms regime that has emerged in the last 30 years.

At first glance the idea of missile defense seems eminently sensible.  Its the Pentagon's dirty little secret that the real mission of the Department of Defense is not defending American citizens and the territorial United States.  More than 90% of America's vast military power is for the purpose of projecting American power into other parts of the world, not to defend North America.  The Department of Offense would actually be a better moniker for the Pentagon.  In one sense it is actually refreshing to hear the Bush administration talking about protecting American lives here at home rather than putting American men and women in jeopardy overseas.

So then, what is wrong with Bush's missile defense plan?  Well, almost everything.

1. It is very expensive.

2. It won't work.

3. It will make us less safe. It will rekindle the nuclear arms race.  It will force Russia and China to increase the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, undermining 30 years of progress in controlling and reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.

4. It will put at risk America's system of alliances.

Missile Defense Is Very Expensive
Much of the opposition to missile defense in Congress and the media comes from sticker shock.  No one knows for sure the total cost of a robust missile defense system.  Estimates vary widely, but no one thinks it will come cheap.  And when was the last time the Pentagon produced a major weapons system at anything near the price of the original estimates?

Any missile defense that would have any real chance of actually working would certainly cost hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions. Even the Pentagon is leery of the huge expense.  The Bush administration is trying to assure the military that the cost of missile defense would not come at the expense of current weapons programs or other military spending.  If that were really true, then missile defense would require either major cuts in social programs or new burdens on taxpayers.  In reality, paying for misile defense would probably require all three things--cuts in other military spending, cuts in social programs, and new burdens for the taxpayers.

But in my opinion, some things are worth paying for.  For myself, I am willing to concede that if missile defense were able to provide the promised impenetrable shield making American citizens invulnerable to a nuclear attack, it would be a bargain for the price.  But it won't.
 

Missile Defense Won't Work

An Invulnerable Shield or Something Much Less?

When he first proposed his Star Wars plan, Ronald Reagan used the image of an impenetrable shield around and above the U.S., protecting the entire population from harm.  The current debate in Congress and among defense analysts has long ago moved to more realistic terms.  But advocates of missile defense still rely on the powerful imagery of protecting the American people from attack.  That is still the picture of missile defense in the public mind, that is what fires the popular imagination.

There are at least 4 compelling reasons why missile defense won't work as promised:

1. The basic technical problem is too difficult

2. The system can never be reliably tested as a system

3. Enemies can use countermeasures to fool the system

4. Enemies can use other methods of delivering weapons of mass destruction
 
 

The Basic Technical Problem:  Hitting a Hundred or a Thousand Bullets with Other Bullets

Experts in the field have compared the idea of missile defense to "hitting a bullet with a bullet."  But actually that understates the magnitude of the technical problem.  An attacker is highly unlikely to send only a single missile at the U.S.  If an enemy has the capability to build one missile, it obviously has the capability to build many.  Non-super powers like North Korea, Iran, or Iraq may have limited access to scarce plutonium or enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons payloads.  But missiles could also carry biological or chemical payloads that are also weapons of mass destruction, and their essential ingredients are common.

Bush administration officials have trumpeted the success of the last test of hitting a target with an interceptor missile.  But in 4 total tests that makes the total score, interceptors 2, enemy missiles 2.  In a real attack that would simply not be good enough.

In thinking seriously about missile defense, one should distinguish between attacks by two types of powers.  The first is a large scale attack by a major nuclear power possessing hundreds or even thousands of missiles.  At the present time, only Russia has such a capability, although China clearly could clearly build up from its current number of 20 or so intercontinental missiles into a force numbering in the hundreds or thousands.

Because of the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, missile defense would make virtually no difference in the outcome of an attack by several hundred or thousands of missiles.  Suppose the U.S. were attacked with 500 nuclear missiles by a major nuclear power, and the missile defense system shot down 90% of incoming missiles (a fantastically high figure).  That would mean 50 missiles would get through, and the United States as we know it would be totally destroyed and most of its people would die.  Missile defense just simply wouldn't work at all against a large scale nuclear attack.

The Bush administration has essentially conceded this reality when it claims missile defense is not designed to protect against at any of the current nuclear powers.  Instead, the Bush administration justifies missile defense as protecting against potential future, smaller powers or renegade groups possessing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and a limited number of missiles.  Suppose such a power attacked with only 50 missiles.  Again, suppose a fantastically high success rate for the missile defense system of 90%.  That would mean 5 missiles would get through, wreaking massive destruction on several major population centers.  In this case the United States as a nation or even a world power would not be destroyed.  But millions would die and the entire population would be effectively terrorized.

In some technical sense one could say that in this case the missile defense system "worked."  It would have kept the U.S. alive as a nation.  But the lives of its people would never be the same, nor would American foreign policy or its position in the world system.  To the ordinary citizen, the system would not have worked very well.  Nor could the American foreign policy establishment really be satisfied with such an outcome.  Thus, even in the case of an attack by a smaller power or renegade group, missile defense cannot really "work."

A real missile defense system would have to be nearly 100% effective to offer any meaningful protection from a real attack with weapons of mass destruction.  A less than 100% effective missile defense system could save some lives in some cases, but it would not really give the U.S. what it is really seeking--the ability to conduct foreign policy without being influenced by threats to attack the American homeland.

But why do I assume a 90% "kill ratio" for a missile defense system is fantastically high?  If we can send men to the moon and back on complex, computerized rockets, why can't we shoot down a few hundred enemy missiles?  Beyond the basic technical problem of hitting nearly every incoming bullet with another bullet, there are other serious problems with missile defense.
 
 





The Problem of Testing

No airline company in the world would buy a new model plane that had never been flown before.  For all other weapons systems the Pentagon has ever bought, it has required testing to demonstrate effectiveness, even though sometimes it turns out those tests have been doctored.  Conservative politicians and professional military opponents of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty argue that the U.S. must continuously perform physical tests of its nuclear weapons to assure their reliability.

But these same conservative politicans then turn around and support a missile defense system that could never be tested as a system.  Components of the system can be tested--interceptor missiles, radars, various interceptor platforms, etc.  But the system as a system could never be tested, short of an actual attack.  Realistic testing of a massive defensive system requires a realistic simulation of an enemy attack, including the enemy's strategies to overcome that system.  But how could the U.S. know before-hand what combination of stategies an enemy would employ?
 

Countermeasures

An enemy determined to launch a missile attack against the U.S. would obviously react to the presence of a missile defense system.  The potential countermeasures an enemy could take are many, but let us just consider a few.

First of all, an enemy with nuclear weapons could attack radars or other components of a missile defense system, either with other missiles or with conventional or special operations forces.  Taking out just one radar system would leave a massive blind spot in the electronic eyes directing a defensive system.  Even a relatively inaccurate hit near a radar site could scramble the electronics of the facility, which could be just as effective as a direct hit.  Any missile defense would obviously be programmed to protect itself, but the need for virtual infallibility of such a complex system is once again revealed.

An enemy could also equip its missiles with either multiple indepedent payloads or dummy payloads that would separate from the missile, leaving the defense system several targets to shoot down, multiplying by a factor of 10 or 20 the number of "hits" a defense system would have to score.  Such decoys would be much cheaper to produce than actual weapons payloads.  Similarly, an enemy could stage use deception and diversion by launching several apparent attack missiles which were just decoys.  Again, such pseudo-missiles would be much cheaper and easier to produce than real missiles because they would not have to be accurate.

Of course, every potential countermeasure has a potential defense.  But each multiplication of countermeasures and defenses adds another layer of complexity to the problems of a system that needs to be nearly 100% effective to be at all useful.  Each level of complexity of countermeasures and responses to countermeasures degrades the effectiveness of an already incredibly complex, essentially untestable system.
 

Other Delivery Systems

We have seen just how sensitive a missile defense system would have to be, just how many things would have to go right for a missile defense system to have the near 100% effectiveness to perform as advertised.  But even a 100% accurate missile defense system could not reliably protect the U.S. from attack by weapons of mass destruction.

There are other ways of delivering such weapons than missiles--offshore non-ballistic projectiles, car bombs, suitcase bombers, etc.  20th century terrorists have been quite ingenious in finding ways to blow up things.  One just needs to remember Oklahoma City or the World Trade Towers.  A determined opponent possessing weapons of mass destruction, some fishing trawlers and/or other simple off-shore platforms, and/or a relative handful of suicide bombers could almost certainly hit the U.S. with several weapons of mass destruction in a short period of time.  Smaller states or renegade groups without massive resources might actually prefer this option.

This line of attack could be called to Maginot Line Response.  After World War I, France built a massive defensive wall called the Maginot Line to prevent a repeat of a German invasion across their common border.  So in World War II the Germans simply went around the Maginot Line through Belgium and then into France.  The Maginot Line provided absolutely no insurance against a successful German attack.  Delivering weapons of mass destruction without using missiles is the Maginot Line Response to missile defense.
 

Why Will Missile Defense Actually Make Us Less Safe?  Because It Will Rekindle the Arms Race

A Generation of Arms Control

So what is the alternative to missile defense?  Should the United States just leave itself vulnerable to attack by weapons of mass destruction?  Of course not.  The alternative to missile defense is arms control, a proven way to reduce the threat to America and its allies.

Even if missile defense were totally useless against major nuclear powers or minor powers who delivered weapons of mass destruction by other means, and even if missile defense cost hundreds of billions of dollars, might it not be worth it to counter a potential missile attack?

We have seen the limits of missile defense:

1. It would be useless against an all out attack of a major nuclear power.
2. It would be useless against an attack by a minor power that did not use ballistic missiles.
3. It would only be partially effective against a ballistic missile attack by a minor power.

Even so, might not missile defense be worth the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost if it could defend a fraction of the population of the U.S. and its allies against a missile attack by a minor power or renegades in control of a few nuclear missiles, or perhaps an accidental launch of Russian of Chinese missiles?

Well, perhaps.  Except that missile defense actually will force Russia and China to increase the number of missiles targetted at the United States and increase the possibility of an accidental launch of some of those missiles.  Unilateral American pursuit of missile defense will bring an end to a generation of arms control that has actually made Americans more safe by reducing the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the U.S. and increasing confidence by potential adversaries that a major nuclear war is unlikely.

When I was a graduate student in the early 1980s I used to joke with my colleagues that arms control was like Christianity, a great idea that was talked about a lot but never really tried.   But since the START Treaty of 1987, the Russians have cut the number of nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S. roughly in half, and before the U.S. began pushing its missile defense plan, much greater reductions in Russian weapons were on the way.  Seeing the restraint of the U.S. and Russia, the other global nuclear power, China, has also not built up its weapons and missiles as quickly as it could have.  As part of the arms control process, the U.S. and Russia have also lowered the level of alert of their nuclear systems, thus making an accidental launch of a few missiles much less unlikely.  American pursuit of a missile defense system, even a relatively ineffective one, will reverse all that progress.

The Bush administration has said it wants to pursue both arms control and missile defense as methods of reducing the threat to the U.S.  Perhaps they are sincere in saying this; perhaps not.  But it doesn't matter whether they are sincere in their utterances.
Pursuing missile defense will almost certainly rekindle the nuclear arms race.  It will force Russia and China to increase the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, undermining 30 years of progress in controlling and reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.
 

The Impact of American Missile Defense on Potential Enemies

The Bush administration claims its missile defense plan is not aimed at gaining strategic superiority over the Russians or the Chinese.  It claims that missile defense is strictly for the purpose of protecting against other, minor missile powers or accidental or renengade launches of a few Russian or Chinese weapons.  The Russians and the Chinese are quite skeptical about this claim, and rightfully so. In fact, it does not matter whether Russian or Chinese leaders believe the Bush administration or not.

If an American missile defense system goes forward, Russian and China will be forced to deal with the reality that missile defense makes them less certain that in the event of war their missiles would get to their targets.  The only logical response to that situation would be to build more missiles.  You could be sure that if the shoe were on the other foot, that is the way the U.S. would respond.  If Americans were reading in the paper that the Russians were going to deploy a missile defense system, you could be sure the Pentagon and the Congress would be clamoring for more missiles to make sure the U.S. retained its certainty that it could hit strategic targets and population centers in Russia.

When the United States and the Russians first entered serious arms control negotiations in the late 1960s and early 70s, the first major treaty they produced was the ABM or Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  That was no accident.  There was an overwhelming logic to the ABM Treaty proceeding missile limitation talks.  The ABM Treaty made possible all the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties) agreements that followed.

All the subsequent arms control treaties were based on the original ABM Treaty for one simple reason.  If the U.S. and Russia foreswore missile defense, each could be certain that in the event of a major war it could successfully wipe out the other.  This produced a bizarre form of strategic stability, which was ironically called MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction).  Under MAD, the U.S. and Russia were both assured that most of their missiles would reach their targets. Thus they could begin limiting and then reducing the absurd level of weapons the arms race had produced and still be certain in the event of war of wiping out the other.  Living under MAD is not sane way to live, but it at least is a way station until a more peaceful world order can be created.  Renewing the arms race would be total insanity.

And make no mistake.  American pursuit of missile defense will end the arms control process.  First of all, it will violate the ABM Treaty, which forbids deployment of the missile defense.  The ABM Treaty also forbids testing of missile defense systems or even their more complex components.  So far the U.S. has walked a fine line in its testing, avoiding violating the letter, if not the spirit, of the ABM Treaty.  But the Bush administration has publicly stated that once the ABM Treaty begins to handcuff its missile defense plans, it intends to withdraw from the treaty.  And if the U.S. withdraws from the first major arms control agreement that made of all subsequent agreements possible, Russia and China can only conclude that U.S. commitment to any arms control agreement is suspect.  They would have serious grounds to doubt the U.S. commitment to the process of arms control itself.

The Russians and Chinese have stated so in blunt, undiplomatic language time and time again.  The Bush administration has simply proven deaf to any such utterances.  The Bush administration claims it can have missile defense and arms control too even in the face of repeated public and private statements of numerous Russian and Chinese officials and prominent citizens.  That can only be seen as a willful denial of reality.  Missile defense ends serious arms control, and the Bush administration either knows this or is in massive denial of reality.

In the section on the feasibility of effective missile defense I have argued that missile defense would not make any difference in the event of an all out attack by Russia or a future China possessing hundreds of nuclear missiles.  But to a potential enemy, it does not matter much if missile defense is effective or not.  Russian and Chinese military leaders have to plan as if a missile defense system were highly effective.  Again, you can be sure if the shoe were on the other foot, the Pentagon would demand that American attack forces be increased by a factor of 5 to 10 or more times to make certain that even in the unlikely event that a missile defense was highly effective, the U.S. would still retain its ability to annihilate its enemy.

In order to placate Russian and Chinese fears, members of previous administrations have floated the idea of sharing missile defense technology with the Russians and perhaps the Chinese.  But even that idea, as unbelievable as it seems, could never placate the Russians or the Chinese or other potential enemies.  Even in the highly unlikely event that the U.S. did eventually opt to share missile defense technology with the Russians and Chinese, one would have to presume a period of development when the U.S. was in the lead in the field.  No self-respecting Russian or Chinese leader could wait passively by while the U.S. developed a missile defense in the probably vain hope that one day the U.S. would share it with them.  They would have to suspend the process of arms control and build up their weapons until such a missile defense would become ready and was completely installed in their nation.  Even in the unlikely case that the U.S. shared some of the technology with Russia and China, how could those powers be sure they were getting the top of the line stuff, rather than some technologically inferior hand-me-downs?

Missile Defense, Other Missile Powers, and the Chain of Proflieration
And even if the U.S. did share missile defense technology with the Russians and the Chinese, what about other actual and possible nuclear or missile powers?  Would the U.S. share missile defense technology with India?  with the Islamic state of Pakistan?  with the hard-line communist state of North Korea?  with the hard-line Islamic state of Iran?  with avowed enemy Iraq?  Any nation excluded from the missile defense club would have the same incentive the Russians and Chinese now have to rush forward their development and deployment of missiles and weapons of mass destruction rather than negotiate forgoing weapons systems, as the North Koreans have done in the past few years.

The issue of who to share with shows the fundamental futility of missile defense and the chain of nuclear and missile proliferation.  Once only the U.S. had the bomb.  Because the U.S. had it, the Russians had to get it.  Because China's actual or potential enemies the U.S. and Russia had the bomb, China had to get it.  Because China and India are potential enemies, India had to get the bomb to counter the Chinese.  Because India and Pakistan have fought several major wars and innumerable border skimished, once India had the bomb, Pakistan had to get it.  North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are still trying to get the bomb and missile technology to counter threats from the U.S. and regional rivals.  Etc., etc., etc.

In the same way, missile defense has its own chain of proliferation.  If the U.S. has it, Russia and China will have to build up their offensive missile capability.  If Russia and China get missile defense, either from the U.S. or on their own, or if they build up their offensive capabilities in response to American missile defense, India will have to build up to counter potential reduction of its ability to deter their potential enemies.  If India is brought into the missile defense club or increases it offensive capability to match its potential enemies, Pakistan will have to build up.  Etc., etc., etc.  While one can at least imagine the U.S. sharing missile defense with G-8 member Russia, is it at all believable that the U.S. would share the technology with all its potential adversaries?  I can hear the howls in Congress already, "Why are we giving away a trillion dollar technology to Communist China? the Islamic state of Pakistan? (or Iran, or Iraq, or North Korea--choose your favorite villain)
 

Missile Defense and the Problem of Accidental Missile Launches

Proponents argue that missile defense could at least protect against accidental or unauthorized launches of nuclear missiles.  Actually, missile defense will make the problem of accidental or unauthorized launch of missiles much worse.

One of the very real benefits of the arms control process of the past generation has been a lowering of the state of alert of American and Russian nuclear missiles.  During the Cold War, both the Russians and the U.S. had to be prepared for a sudden launch of enemy missiles with the intent of destroying their own missiles, a so-called first strike.  So both the U.S. and Russia kept most of their nuclear missiles on constant alert, ready to be launched in a matter of minutes if a possible enemy attack were detected on radar.  This state of constant readiness made the possibility of accidental nuclear war, portrayed in fiction in the movies Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, very real.  Both the U.S. and Russia came close to firing their missiles several times during the Cold War due to misinterpretation of data from early warning radars.

Once arms control, and particularly the ABM Treaty, established the principle of MAD, the U.S. and Russia could relax a little.  Now neither country had the capability to wipe out the other's offensive missiles in a first strike, so missiles were no longer kept on alert, ready to be fired in a moment's notice.  That reduces considerably the probability of accidental nuclear war, although it does not remove it completely.

But if the U.S. pursues missile defense, both the Russians and the Chinese will once again have to fear a potential first strike.  Such a first strike might not knock out all their weapons, but coupled with missile defense, it would reduce the certainty that their remaining missiles would get through to their targets.  So the Russians and Chinese would have to raise the alert status of many, probably most, of their weapons.  Weapons on higher alert have a much higher probability of being launched accidentally or by rogue elements in the military.  Again, it would not matter that the American missile defense would probably not be very effective.  Russian and Chinese leaders would have to assume it had some degree of effectiveness.  That would only be rational military planning.

The need for a maximum alert status would be even higher for lesser powers with fewer missiles.  They would have even more reason to fear that a U.S. first strike coupled with missile defense would actually reduce the damage they could do to the U.S. homeland or U.S. bases overseas.
 

Arms Control is the Only Missile Defense that Really Works

Instead of missile defense, the U.S. should rely on a proven method of reducing the threat of attack to the American homeland--arms control.  In the past decade the Russians have cut the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the U.S. by roughly half.  In the START II treaty the Russians have committed to much greater cuts.  If the arms control process continues, it is very plausible that arsenals could be reduced much further than that.  The Chinese, seeing the restraint of the U.S. and Russia have shown similar restraint in not embarking on a major build-up seeking some kind of rough parity with current U.S. and Russian capabilities.

But the Russians and Chinese have made it clear.  U.S. pursuit of missile defense will end arms control negotiations.

Arms control has even worked with the so-called rogue states that provide the stated purpose of missile defense.  North Korea is often cited as the most dangerous of the so-called rogue states, because it is close to being able to produce nuclear weapons and long range missiles, and because it has long displayed great hostility toward the U.S.  But in the past decade North Korea has agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons development, stop testing long-range missiles, and at times softened its ideological hostility toward the U.S.  In the final year of the Clinton administration high level North Korean diplomats visited the U.S., former Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited North Korea, and a visit from Clinton or Gore was perhaps in the cards, all part of a process of engaging North Korea in the world community and committing it to peaceful relations with South Korea and the West.

But upon taking office the Bush administration suspended talks with the North Koreans and openly questioned the wisdom of the agreements the U.S. had reached with North Korea.  It is probably too paranoid to argue that the Bush administration would rather have North Korea as a bogeyman to cite when pursuing missile defense than real arms control agreements with the North Koreans.  But once again it shows the conservative lack of faith in arms control, a lack of dedication to the only serious way to actually reduce the threat of an attack on the U.S. employing weapons of mass destruction.
 

The Effect of Missile Defense on American Alliances
The global power of the U.S. is based on a system of alliances.  It was this system of alliances, more than U.S. power alone, which brought down the Soviet Union, which although militarily powerful itself was increasingly isolated and without important partners in its confrontation with the West.  The U.S. does not stand alone in the world.  Its power is buttressed by alliances with most of the major economic, political, and military powers of the world--all the major western European powers via NATO, Japan, South Korea, etc.  Even fomer enemy Russia has been seeking entry into American-led NATO.

But almost all of America's global partners openly oppose the very idea of missile defense.  Every major nation in NATO--France, Germany, Italy, even the usually pro-American British, have openly criticized missile defense plans.  Even South Korea, which historically toed the American line of security issues bitterly opposes missile defense.  Only Japan, still in shock because of recent North Korean missile tests shot over its territory, has had anything positive to say about missile defense.

The Bush administration should take seriously such nearly universal opposition among its allies to its missile defense plan.  If almost all your friends caution you against a certain course of action, it would be wise to reevaluate.  The fact that the Bush administration blithely continues on a path opposed by virtually all America's allies is another sign of the magical thinking that has been driving its commitment to missile defense.

America's European allies are actually more in tune with how missile defense will affect Russia and thus the security of Europe.  They can see a generation of progress in creating a safe and stable Europe being undermined just by the rhetoric of the Bush administration.  They can foresee the catastropic effects of actual deployment.  The same is true in South Korea.  South and North Korea are on the cusp of ending a half century of hostility and completely reshaping the security picture in Northeast Asia.  The South Koreans realize missile defense is a massive stumbling block to that process, especially as the U.S. uses North Korea as the ultimate villain that makes missile defense necessary.

At this point, missile defense is just rhetoric, and correspondingly European and Asian opposition to the Bush administration's security policy is only verbal.  But if the Bush administration pushes forward with a plan so detrimental to the interests of its allies and so vehemently opposed by its friends, one has to question how missile defense will affect current allies perceptions of their relationship with the U.S.  While the break-up of NATO is certainly not imminent, missile defense pushes U.S. allies in Europe to look to each other for a shared vision of mutual security rather than to a self-absorbed U.S. bent of pursuing a strategic vision rejected by its major partners.  The American relation with South Korea will also never be the same if the U.S. ends up being blamed for halting progress in bringing North and South Korea together again due in part to demonization of North Korea in order to see its missile defense folly.

Missile defense not only severely damages progress in reducing threat with America's historic enemies.  It also badly damages relations with America's historical allies.  So how can the Bush administration be so deeply committed to such a bad idea?
 

Why Is Such a Bad Idea So Seductive
to the American Mind?

It is easy to lay the blame for Bush's missile defense folly at the feet of the military contractors and the Air Force brass, who will profit immensely, directly or indirectly.  There is no doubt that much of the momentum that has built up over the years for missile defense is driven by the avarice of giant corporations with visions of multibillion dollar contracts shimmering in their eyes, and by Air Force generals whose dreams of command reach all the way to outer space.  But the roots of this impossible dream of an invulernable shield over the North American continent run deeper even than the ubiquitous military-industrial complex.

The irrational origins of Bush's missile defense plan lie deep in American history--in the early experience of American isolation from European politics that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans provided, in the abiding distrust in foreigners and especially diplomacy that isolation bred, and in the abiding faith in technology of the nation that went to the moon and invented the internet.

In its formative years, the United States developed as a nation relatively invulnerable from attack from the European Great Powers.  To some extent this sense of invulnerability was an illusion even then.  After all, in the War of 1812 the British burned Washington D.C. to the ground and made successful thrusts into various targets along America's northern and western frontiers.  But it was essentially true that the physical isolation of North America from Europe and Asia provided a relatively free strategic environment for the United States to develop its nationhood, its economy, and eventually its international power.

This relative invulnerability of the American homeland to foreign attack was punctured dramatically in the early Cold War.  As the Soviet Union developed and deployed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the 1950s, the U.S. was abruptly exposed to an enemy.  Suddenly the American homeland was not only open to attack, most of the country and its people could be vaporized in a matter of hours.  Not only were North American military targets at risk for the first time in a century, but every citizen of the U.S. became hostage to the decisions of a decidedly hostile government.  This was quite a shock to a government and people used to thinking of wars as something that were fought "over there."

The idea of missile defense represents a foolish yet dangerous wish to return to the prior state of American invulnerability, like a childish wish to return to the safety of the womb.  Rather than face the reality that the United States too is now at risk of suffering direct attack in any future war with a major power, Americans long for the safety of previous times that has long passed away.  Advocates of missile defense, like children, yearn for a magical solution to a very real and serious problem.

And lo and behold, America's favorite superhero, technology, seems to provide one.  After all, if we can go to the moon and back, why can't we build an invincible shield against nuclear attack?  We have seen why.  Shooting down dozens or hundreds or thousands of enemy missiles is an incalculably more difficult task than sending one rocket to the moon and back.  Enemies can employ countermeasures or simply go around missile defense by using non-ballistic missile forms of attack.  Comparatively, the moon was a creampuff target, a single, sitting duck.

The flip side of this blind faith in technology in the American mind is the lack of belief in diplomacy and international institutions.  From Washington's farewell address warning of the "entangling alliances" of European politics through the U.S. Senate's rejection of American membership in the League of Nations after World War I, the brute fact of American separation from Europe and Asia has been paralleled by a powerful philosophy of isolationism.  Isolationist sentiment seemed to have been decisively defeated during World War II and the ensuing Cold War, as the United States took up a permanent position of world leadership consistent with its overseas economic and political interests.

In the post-World War II era, the United States has taken a major leadership role, some would even say a position of domination, in a variety of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, NATO, etc.  As part of its Cold War diplomacy, the United States entered into several arms control treaties with the Soviet Union, beginning with the ABM Treaty, and continuing with the SALT and START arms control and reduction regimes.

The American right has never been entirely comfortable with such international institutions and treaties, but generally reluctantly accepted them as part of engaging allies around the world in America's holy war against Communism.  In fact, conservative Republicans often voted against the arms control treaties, especially those negotiated by Democratic presidents.  Now in the post-Cold War world, the right feels free to abandon international treaties in a vain quest for stragegic invulnerability from potential enemies.

But contrary to  the American faith in technology and disbelief in diplomacy, it is technology that has gotten us into this mess and it is diplomacy that is slowly digging us out.  Advocates of missile defense just cannot or will not see how much the U.S. has benefitted from the arms control regime that has been painstakingly developed over more than a generation.  Arms control has truly reduced the threat to the American homeland, making potential enemies not only less well equipped but also less hostile and more reassured about American intentions.  Arms control has helped the U.S. keep together a system of alliances that spans the globe by maintaining confidence among friend and foe that the U.S. is committed to a safer world order and a process of engagement with potential enemies.  Despite the protestation of the Bush administration, arms control and all the benefits it brings will be destroyed by pursuit of missile defense.
 

A Hidden Agenda for Missile Defense?

We have seen the irrational bases of the quest for missile defense.  But perhaps there is also a hidden agenda behind missile defense.  Perhaps we are not being told the true reason we are being asked to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and abandon the arms control process that has actually worked to make us safer from attack by major nuclear powers.

The Bush administration claims missile defense is to protect against attacks by small rogue powers or against accidental or unauthorized launch of a few of the missiles of major nuclear powers.  But we have seen that in the event of an attack by a small missile power, missile defense would not make the U.S. invulnerable.  Missile defense might or might not save some lives, depending on how the enemy chose to deliver its weapons of mass destruction.  But the U.S. would still sustain huge damage with massive loss of life.  Missile defense actually makes the problem of accidental launch of Russian or other enemy missile more likely because it will require Russia and other powers to keep their weapons on a higher state of alert.

The Russians and the Chinese see in missile defense an American quest for strategic superiority.  They see in Bush's plan a determination to put the U.S. back in the position it held at the end of World War II as the only power that could inflict massive damage on its enemies, a desire to be able to threaten major enemies without fear of retaliation.

But we have seen how vain that hope is.  While it is true that missile defense would complicate the Russian or Chinese task of retaining the capability to destroy the American homeland, in the end it is as futile as the mythical emperor's command for the sea to recede.  The Russians and Chinese will be forced to react to American pursuit of missile defense, but they will not effectively be intimidated by this massive bluff.

Rather, the possible hidden agenda of missile defense can be seen in America's history of previous half hearted attempts at missile defense.  At the time the ABM treaty was signed, the only working missile defense system in the U.S. was built around a major missile complex in North Dakota.  Its purpose was not to protect lives, but to protect American missiles from a possible Russian first strike.

When Ronald Reagan revived the idea of missile defense with his impossible dream of an invulnerable shield over the entire United States, many analysts inside and outside the Pentagon were dubious.  But Pentagon researchers saw promise in the task of point defense, that is, defending not a huge territory but defending a single location.  That is a much more technically feasible task, although it too runs into many of the difficulties I have already mentioned.  What Reagan sold as a defense for the American people, the Pentagon sees as a chance to defend their missiles, their bombers, and their overseas bases.

In the estimation of most serious analysts, even this quest for point defense is eventually futile, especially against major powers like Russia and China.  Again, even smaller powers or rogue groups could use more conventional forms of attack to gain their ends.  The American bases in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon or the Navy ship the Cole in Yemen were not hit with missiles.  But point defense at least has some plausibility, whereas the invulnerable shield over most of the North American continent has none.
 

Missile Defense or Missile Delusions?

The Bush administration presents its missile defense plan as a choice between two strategic visions--an old, obsolete way of thinking born in a Cold War that is now over and based on the disturbing principle of mutual assured destruction vs. a future-oriented vision of a nation free from concern over attack by weapons of mass destruction.  That is a false choice, because the second option is simply an illusion.

But Bush is right in one sense--missile defense does present a choice between two strategic visions.  One is a never ending defensive arms race that restimulates a never ending offensive arms race and will make the U.S. the target of ever more foreign weapons of mass destruction.  The other is a truly global vision, a world built on diplomacy and mutual advantage where the number of weapons of mass destruction aimed at the U.S. is gradually reduced by solving the real political and military problems that lead other powers to identify the U.S. as a mortal enemy.  That is the real choice.


LINKS

The Pentagon's Trojan Horse, In These Times

Missile Defense, The Center for Defense Information

Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space

Missile Defense, Union of Concerned Scientists

Ballistic Missile Defense, Council for a Livable World

Resources, Project Abolition

Star Wars is a Lemon, Peace Action

Stop Star War, Greenpeace

In the News, Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers
 
 

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