Democrats’ Risk on Missile Defense

Since Bill Clinton left office, the Democratic Party has lost its focus on the contentious matter of national missile defense. That is understandable, but unfortunate. Unless Democrats devise a sound alternative to the Bush administration’s plans, they will lose the debate — and the country will lose as well. The recent Bush-Putin agreement to talk about the issue should provide Democrats with just the focal point they need to get their act together.

Democrats fall into two main camps. The first group opposes missile defense because it could mean junking the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which they see as the cornerstone of strategic stability. The second favors missile defense, but wants it kept limited, largely because they think ambitious defenses will antagonize Moscow and thereby degrade US security. This second group also worries that spending $100 billion or more on defenses will divert money from programs needed to protect America against other threats.

Unfortunately, the first group of Democrats appears to be larger than the second. This is unfortunate because Democrats will lose the debate if they seek to protect a treaty while Republicans promise to protect America. That would obviously harm the party. It would also harm the country, because the administration’s missile defense plans are excessive. Secretary of State Colin Powell insists that the administration favors a limited defense, but the Pentagon’s plans for an ambitious, multitiered system suggest otherwise. So do National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s recent comments dismissing the idea of negotiating a new treaty that restrains missile defenses.

Despite Russian President Putin’s newly expressed interest in talking, it is difficult to imagine Russia actually agreeing to a treaty, or even an informal framework, compatible with what the Pentagon hopes to build. While pleasing Moscow should not be the Bush administration’s top priority, it is not in US interests to threaten Moscow needlessly. Otherwise, it may stop cooperating with Washington on constraining weapons proliferation, resist better safeguards for nuclear materials, and otherwise obstruct efforts to lower nuclear dangers. American security would suffer as a result.

Democrats therefore need to offer an alternative to the administration’s missile defense policies. But thus far, all they have done is say what they are against. They complain that defensive technologies won’t work, that the long-range missile threat has yet to emerge, and that the administration is recklessly seeking to violate the ABM Treaty. But the first two arguments could crumble rather quickly. Moreover, Democrats will find it hard to argue that the ABM Treaty is sacrosanct when Bill Clinton came close to withdrawing from it only last year.

Sniping at the Bush administration offers the Democrats some short-term benefits, but in the end, it will not substitute for a real strategy. Democrats need to move beyond criticism and devise a policy for a limited, treaty-constrained, national missile defense.

The outlines of such a policy are straightforward. The main idea should be to retain the Clinton administration’s policy of building a defense aimed at rogue states and consistent with a modified ABM Treaty. The treaty’s original limit of 200 defensive interceptors remains sound. But the treaty’s prohibition on national missile defense must be dropped. Its prohibitions on mobile and foreign-based defenses should also be discarded, to allow for so-called boost-phase defenses. Boost-phase defenses would be less vulnerable to enemy countermeasures and more effective in defending US allies than a midcourse system on American territory like the one the Clinton administration initiated. If based on land, at sea, or in the air — as opposed to space —
boost-phase defenses should also be relatively reassuring to China or Russia, since they could not threaten those countries’ deterrents. Finally, a modified treaty must also allow use of the airborne laser for national missile defense.

Taking this approach, Democrats would support several Bush administration missile defense programs. But they would use Congress’s power of the purse to limit work on space-based interceptors and lasers, restricting them to preliminary research and development for the foreseeable future. And they would prohibit testing systems commonly known as theater missile defenses against long-range missiles. These systems, including the Army’s THAAD and the Navy Theater Wide capability, are to be produced and deployed in large numbers to defend against shorter-range missiles. If they gain capabilities against long-range missiles, the idea of a limited national missile defense would immediately be lost — and with it, any realistic hope of convincing Russia to accept a new strategic framework.

Many Democrats will find this proposal too much to swallow at first. But the alternative is to watch the Bush administration divide and conquer its congressional opposition, and ultimately deploy a large missile defense with all the strategic harm that would entail. Starting with the 2002 defense bill, Democrats need to figure out not just what they are against in missile defense, but also what they are for.