(Washington, D.C.): As George W. Bush nears an historic decision on his missile defense legacy, one of the most influential editorial pages in the world has weighed in. The Wall Street Journal today urged the President to stay the course and free the United States, once and for all, from the tyranny of an arms control treaty that requires it to remain vulnerable to ballistic missile attack.
The Journal editorial says all that needs to be said about the folly of thinking it will be easier to get out from under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty’s prohibition on deployment of missile defenses later on, rather than doing it now. In fact, as a practical matter, if President Bush passes up the opportunity to take this step now — when he is at the peak of his personal popularity, with strong public support for his missile defense program and at a moment when Russian opposition, if any, can be safely discounted — he runs a serious risk that he may not be able to deploy such defenses at all during his term in office.
The Journal makes a particularly trenchant and practical point: If President Bush winds up, in effect, “buying” relief from the ABM Treaty’s constraints on development and testing of anti-missile systems with a commitment to cut U.S. nuclear forces to very low (possibly even problematically low) levels — “What does Mr. Bush offer next time?” (i.e., when he needs relief from the Treaty’s prohibition on deployment, which would reportedly be left intact under the deal now in the works).
It would be a travesty if a president committed to defending America were to wind up getting even less than his predecessor, who had no such commitment, but nonetheless sought a “Grand Bargain” with the Kremlin — a compromise that envisioned exchanging deep cuts in strategic nuclear arms for Russian agreement to a limited deployment of anti-missile systems in Alaska.
The Wall Street Journal, 6 November 2001
It looks like a deal to revise the ABM Treaty may be in the offing, to be announced when Presidents Bush and Putin meet at Mr. Bush’s ranch next week. In the strongest hint yet, Russian Defense Secretary Sergei Ivanov said yesterday that the two sides have made “clear progress” in their Treaty discussions.
It’s not over yet — Mr. Bush is said to be making a decision this week — but the basic thrust is as follows: The U.S. would agree to delay withdrawing from the Treaty in return for Russia allowing the U.S. to proceed with anti-missile tests the Treaty now bans. In addition, both countries would agree to cut their nuclear arsenals to fewer than 2,000 warheads.
While we wait for the details, mark us down as preferring a complete, final break from the 1972 accord, as permitted under Article 15. Compromises are sometimes necessary, but this is one of those moments in history when a clean break from the “arms control process” would be better for both countries. And the moment may not easily come again.
The ABM Treaty was written when Russia and the U.S. were historical rivals. Today both countries want a closer relationship with each other, and both share the same common threat, which is Islamic fundamentalism armed with weapons of mass destruction. More than two dozen nations either already possess long-range ballistic missiles or will soon have them. If anthrax and Osama bin Laden have taught us anything, it is that arms control and defense are not the same things.
We agree that it would be no small thing if post-Cold War Russia aligns itself more closely with the West. This has been a goal of Russian reformers since Peter the Great, and it’s worth it for America to pay some price to help it occur. But we disagree with the State Department view that Mr. Putin won’t budge unless Mr. Bush gives in on missile defenses.
Debt over defenses
Mr. Putin has his own reasons for pursuing better U.S. ties, most of them well beyond the old Cold War military issues. Some of them are economic, such as the renegotiation or forgiveness of Soviet-era debt, as well as faster entry into the World Trade Organization. The latter requires the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the 1974 law that links Soviet emigration to trade, and which Mr. Bush has already agreed to push through Congress. The U.S. has already toned down its criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya.
With his own approval rating at more than 75%, Mr. Putin ought to be able to explain a U.S. Treaty withdrawal to the satisfaction of most Russians. All the more so if he can return to Moscow with significant cuts in offensive weapons. Russia retains thousands of missiles, but the cost of maintaining them is high and he’d like to spend the money elsewhere.
U.S. strategists say our arsenal can safely fall to below 2,000 warheads, down from 7,000 or so today, but Mr. Bush can only cut that arsenal once. It would be a mistake to offer those cuts merely in return for a deal that allows some missile testing today, with more negotiation to come in six months or a year. What does Mr. Bush offer next time?
For his part, Mr. Bush is being told he needs the political cover of Russian agreement to help push missile defense through Congress. But that was before September 11. Domestic political support for missile defense has since soared, especially among women, so Mr. Bush doesn’t really need the Russian’s imprimatur. In a recent Pew Research survey, support has climbed to 64%, and 49% now believe it should be developed immediately. Seventy-three percent of mothers now support missile defense, up from 53% before September 11.
It’s true that the U.S. isn’t yet ready to deploy a missile defense, so waiting wouldn’t have to cripple future efforts. And unlike some of our friends on the right, we don’t doubt Mr. Bush’s sincerity on the subject. At every juncture when he might have wavered, Mr. Bush has pressed for missile defenses without apology. Even last month, amid cries that defenses weren’t needed when terrorists could use a suitcase bomb, Mr. Bush called the ABM Treaty “dangerous.”
But these same circumstances won’t always hold. Mr. Bush’s own political stature might not be as high a year from now, and Mr. Putin might have problems of his own. Far better to strike a deal now, when both sides have the political capital to spare. And far better to set the U.S.-Russian relationship on a path away from the “arms control process” that has dominated it for so long. Arms control is something that exists between adversaries, not friends. The U.S. doesn’t negotiate missile treaties with Germany, or Turkey. If this really is going to be an historic Russia realignment toward the West, then who needs arms control?
By remaining inside the ABM Treaty, even with a wink and a nod, the U.S. would also be living a lie. Mr. Bush would be insisting he can build a national missile defense at the same time that he agreed to abide by a Treaty that pledges us not to build one. That’s no way to defend a nation.
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