The Domestic Politics of National Missile Defense

Ivo H. Daalder

The Netherlands Press Association distributed this article to Dutch newspapers for publication.

In President Clinton’s search for a political legacy, the decision to deploy a limited national missile defense system is unlikely to be one. That was underscored by the failure of this weekend’s third test of the administration’s proposed system. But even if the test had succeeded, Clinton would not have gone further than approving contracts for construction that would have been easily reversed by his successor.

Both proponents and opponents of missile defense will be disappointed by Clinton’s straddling of the issue. But not only is this decision the right one given uncertainties about the evolving threat and technology, it also represents a deft handling of a politically volatile issue by the president. The way he did so is instructive.

When Clinton entered office in 1993 he abandoned his Republican predecessors’ quest to build a system to defend America against ballistic missile threats. That quest was inconsistent with the ABM Treaty signed by the U.S. and USSR in 1972, which banned na

Clinton’s decision generated little opposition until the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, when the domestic politics of missile defense began to heat up. One of the first bills introduced in Congress was the “Defend America Act”—which had unmistakable political appeal. Who could be against defending America, especially against a possible threat of ballistic missile attack from “rogue states” like North Korea, Iran, or Iraq?

Rather than opposing the Republican effort, the Clinton administration moved to diffuse its political appeal by agreeing to increase funding for research and development on missile defense in order to be able to deploy a defense system in three years if a new threat emerged. Since the intelligence community maintained it would have at least five years warning if a “rogue state” acquired missiles with sufficient range to attack the United States, the promise to deploy a system within three years after such a warning effectively neutralized the Republican argument.

There things rested until the summer of 1998, when two developments upset the careful political balance Clinton had struck. In July, a congressionally mandated study of the intelligence community’s estimates of the ballistic missile threat concluded that countries like North Korea and Iran could develop a long-range missile with little or no warning. Then, as if to underscore this assessment, in August North Korea tested a missile that with some modifications could reach Hawaii or Alaska.

Together, these events undermined the administration’s argument that the U.S. could deploy a missile defense in time to respond to any new threat. Republicans in Congress moved into full gear and in 1999 passed the “National Missile Defense Deployment Act,” which said that the U.S. would deploy a national missile defense “as soon as technologically feasible.” Then, in October 1999, a test of the proposed defense system succeeded in knocking an incoming missile warhead out of the sky.

But now it looks like the president will leave a final decision on whether to go ahead with deployment to his successors. What happened?


Two things really, both of which played into the hands of those (including the Clinton administration) who did not want to proceed immediately to deployment. First, the threat changed. The momentous summit between North and South Korea raised the prospect of unification—possibly sooner than many even now think. And Iran’s election of a new parliament dominated by reformers dented its image as the great evil of the Middle East. Reflecting these changes the State Department even moved to banish the term “rogue states” from its official vocabulary, now preferring the politically more neutral “states of concern.”

The second change involved missile defense itself. A growing chorus of critics argued that the proposed system would not work—claims that a failed test in early 2000 underscored. Indeed, to the extent there is any agreement on missile defenses in Washington today it is that the system the Pentagon is proposing to build in Alaska is deeply flawed. So even those who want to deploy missile defenses tomorrow do not agree on what system to deploy.

Given these developments, are we back to square one—where Clinton started when he came to office over seven years ago? Not really, for there is still much support for building some kind of defense. But the consensus that seemed to move the United States inexorably to deployment earlier this year is gone—and if politics abroad and technological setbacks at home continue, it may still be some time before there is a decision to deploy a system.