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Batter Up
Tim Francis-Wright

14 October 2001

In his press conference on Thursday night, President Bush expressed hope that he would convince Vladimir Putin of Russia that the two of them should scuttle the ABM Treaty and allow national missile defenses. He made the startling claim that "the case is more strong today that it was on September 10th that the ABM [Treaty] is outmoded, outdated, [and] reflects a different time." In the conference, Bush made several statements that were contradictory, but this claim is one that utterly defies logic.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon provide scant support for a national missile defense system. The attacks did vividly demonstrate that some of the most potent threats against the United States come from other than our traditional adversaries. However, these new adversaries brought death and destruction through thoroughly unconventional means. They did not spend the billions of dollars necessary to build a nuclear weapon from scratch. They did not steal nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons from countries that developed them. They did take ordinary means of transport and turn them into massive bombs. They did subvert security procedures by using weapons like box cutters that hijackers had not used before.

It should be in the interests of the United States and other countries to keep weapons of mass destruction, be they airplanes loaded with fuel, nuclear weapons, or biological agents, out of the hands of terrorists. The Bush administration has properly undertaken to strengthen security at airports, but has missed a host of other opportunities. In the narrow sense of security, Democratic measures to make airport security guards directly responsible to the FAA are going nowhere in Congress. In the broad sense of security, the Bush administration has put the brakes on a Clinton administration program to keep the raw materials for nuclear bomb safe by purchasing plutonium and highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union.

If the national missile defense that President Bush and much of Congress covet could work, then the debate about it might and should still be intense. Would missile defenses make the world safer? Would they still be worthwhile if other nations followed the leads of the United States and Russia? But the United States has nothing like a working missile defense, and it may never have a working missile defense. President Bush admitted it by hoping "to determine whether we can shoot [a missile] down."

The main line of opposition to missile defenses, that they are technically infeasible and woefully expensive, comes from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and from informed academics like Theodore Postel of MIT. These dissenters argue that any adversary skilled or clever enough to design or obtain both a weapon of mass destruction and a means to deliver it could also overwhelm the missile defenses planned today with cheap and feasible countermeasures. (In May, I wrote an article summarizing such arguments. The November 2001 Discover magazine has an informative article questioning the feasibility of missile defense.)

Even if missile defenses were somehow to work exactly as advertised and provide a perfect defense against any sort of ballistic missile defense, the United States would do well to heed the lessons of the Maginot Line. In the aftermath of World War I, France decided to build a state-of-the-art defensive arc all along its frontier with Germany. During World War II, the Line worked exactly as advertised: the Germans could not take it by force. Instead, Germany forced Belgium to declare neutrality, then moved troops through Belgium into France, avoiding the Maginot Line altogether. Any missile defense, even if it works perfectly, is no match for an attack that does not use missiles. An adversary, whether terrorist or "rogue state" could use an airplane, ship, or truck to deliver a weapon of mass destruction almost anywhere in the United States. No missile defense system can defend against those threats.

President Bush talked in his news conference about the possibility that he and President Putin of Russia might decide to rid the world of the scourge of the ABM Treaty. A world without the ABM Treaty might well have little impact on what Russian and the United States do with their nuclear forces. Each country has several thousands of deployed warheads, with thousands more in storage. No actual missile defense system would make either country vulnerable to a first strike by the other.

But for the newest nuclear states, a deployed missile defense system would raise tensions. In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, there are three nuclear powers: Israel, India, and Pakistan, each with no more than a few hundred warheads. If any of the three were to deploy a missile shield that worked perfectly, or even just very well, at least one at least one of the other two states might be tempted to destroy the missile shield before it made that country invulnerable to attack. Each country has powerful fundamentalists who like the notion of a Hindu or Islamic or Jewish bomb, but would hate to have nuclear inferiority. Even if the ABM Treaty is a relic in the eyes of the United States or even Russia, it might be vital in the next few decades to much of the rest of the world.

An historical perspective reveals that the Bush administration is not the first to be willingly myopic on nuclear issues. Many presidential administrations share responsibility for high tensions among the most powerful countries in the Middle East. The United States has never been publicly critical of the Israeli nuclear program. It remained silent, even when the Israeli government in 1986 kidnapped an Israeli citizen, Mordecai Vanunu, whose only offense was to give proof of the Israeli program—not its technical secrets, only its existence— to the Times of London. In the 1980s and 1990s, each presidential administration refused to admit to Congress that Pakistan had an active nuclear weapons program, because our covert aid to the mujaheedin in Afghanistan depended on Pakistani cooperation. Now, the mujaheedin live on, in both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

The illogic in the press conference on missile defense is not surprising, given some of the contradictions coming out of the mouth of the President. One reporter asked him about the blanket alert that the FBI issued that warned about immanent terrorist attacks. The President agreed with that alert but still maintained that his "fellow Americans [should] go about their lives, to fly on airplanes, to travel, to go to work." When Cabinet secretaries made a show of flying on commercial jetliners a few weeks ago, the administration made sure that armed air marshals were on those specific flights. Now, ordinary Americans were supposed to fly, knowing that a terrorist attack was imminent.

During the press conference, Bush proclaimed that "ours is a war against terrorism in general," and that the war was "against all those who seek to export terror and a war against those government that support or shelter them." Yet among the countries supporting the actions against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden were countries like Saudi Arabia, which has financed bin Laden for years, Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban for years, and Syria, which the United States officially describes as supporting terrorism. Either the Bush administration intends to attack these countries, too, or else it lies about its war aims.

Also, the President made two telling proclamations about conventional forces. He first mentioned that the government was "engaged in a different type of war, one obviously that will use conventional forces, but one in which we've got to fight on all fronts." Later, however, he claimed that "perhaps the most important lesson that I learned" from Vietnam "is that you cannot fight a guerrilla war with conventional forces." Therefore, the United States is using conventional forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but at the same time it is not.

The logic behind the President's claim about missile defense goes deeper than a mere contradiction. It goes to the essence of missile defense, that it is somehow better than the flawed system of deterrence that exists today. Despite the technical obstacles, despite the poor results in testing, despite the dubious geopolitical implications, despite the cost, and despite the lessons learned on 11 September, the United States is ready to abrogate perhaps its most important arms control treaty.

The President has proclaimed that it is in the interests of both Russia and the United States to see if missile defense could work. In that spirit, I make a proposition to President Bush that should appeal to his latest work in the private sector.

I have believed for most of my life that I could hit a home run against major-league pitching every time at bat. Only 25 years ago, I knocked a base hit in a Little League game, so I have demonstrated to the world that I could hit a baseball as long as the pitcher could not throw a curve ball. Since that time, I have become taller, stronger, and a better student of the game. I believe that the President could and should convince the owners of the Texas Rangers baseball club that they should pay me millions of dollars in the very near future to be their designated hitter.

The Rangers and the other clubs have longstanding agreements and practices regarding the signing of free agents, but the President has made it clear that some agreements are simply passé. After all, it is in the interests of the President as a baseball fan, and of the Rangers and all the other clubs in baseball to determine if I could hit a home run every time up. By the President's logic, I have every right to expect a guaranteed contract and an invitation to spring training next year.

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