TCS Daily

Bush's Push for Missile Defense Must Defuse Incoming Rhetorical Bombs

By James Pinkerton - May 7, 2001 12:00 AM

It's a cliché George W. Bush is closer, stylistically, to Ronald Reagan than he is to his own father. Both W. and the Gipper share a big-picture, laid-back southwestern style that supporters embrace and critics decry. Reagan, of course, ultimately silenced his detractors by running up eight years of results. President Bush, by contrast, has only just begun to prove himself in office. His May 1 missile defense speech is one more line in that proof. Now, in its wake, he has the opportunity--indeed, the obligation--to establish some political bona fides. And so while Bush might not match the Great Communicator's soaring rhetoric, he must find a way to communicate a great message: the need to defend the United States against post-Soviet rogue-nation threats. It will not be easy, but if he sticks to it with Dutch-like determination, he and his team will find they bring strong arguments - and strong skills - onto the playing field.

Here in the US, opposition to national missile defense (NMD) falls into four categories. Critics complain about its potential cost, its alleged unworkability, its putative damage to international relations, and its supposed irrelevance to the real threats to the US. All four arguments are fatally flawed. But if the Bush Administration is serious about defending the US against incoming missiles, it will have to be equally serious about defending NMD against incoming rhetorical bombs.

First, NMD brings out the inner miser in some of the biggest-spending liberals in Congress. "The administration has yet to tell us the cost of a layered national missile defense, which would likely reach hundreds of billions of dollars," sniped Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in the pages of The St. Paul Pioneer Press. Hundreds of billions is indeed a lot of money--except in Washington, where Uncle Sam spends some $2 trillion a year. Indeed, over the next decade, DC will spend some $25 trillion. And Wellstone, unapologetic possessor of a lifetime "F" grade from the National Taxpayers Union, will no doubt be cheering most of those expenditures-except, of course, for the 16 cents on the federal dollar that goes to the Pentagon.

Second, as for NMD unworkability, Leon Fuerth, national security adviser to former Vice President Gore, told CNN, "What worries me is that the president is talking about, in a very vague sort of way, connecting system A to system B and hoping they will work."

The mainstream press, of course, has been eager to echo these criticisms. ABC News' John McWethy warned against both too much cost and not enough benefit in his report on "World News Tonight": "The US has already spent $100 billion trying to develop a missile defense. The Bush plan could easily cost a hundred billion more with no guarantee that it will actually work."

Yet it's hard to think of any technological undertaking, from Edison's effort to build the light bulb to the University of Pennsylvania's effort to build the ENIAC computer, for which success was ordained in advance. What would Fuerth and his fellow techno-skeptics have said about the highly speculative Manhattan Project at the beginning of World War II?

A third line of criticism warned against overturning past nuclear weapons treaties. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), for example, told The New York Times, "The president is jeopardizing an arms control framework that has served this nation and the world well for decades." And Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) went further; in the pages of The Los Angeles Times, he praised what has come to be called "mutual assured destruction," describing it as "a deterrence that has kept us safe for 40 years"-although during the Cold War, to be sure, not many liberals admitted to liking MAD. Moreover, one can't help but think that the Left of today fears anything that would increase American autonomy vis-a-vis international restraints, even if such autonomy also meant safety for the US population.

A fourth critique is that NMD does not address a whole additional tranche of threats to the US. Robert Wright, opining in, observed that missile defense "will distract us from what everyone agrees is a more serious threat than ballistic missiles-nuclear or biological weapons smuggled into the United States by boat, plane, or car." Yet the US spends some $11 billion on counter-intelligence, with a fair degree of success, as the terror-free Millennium Celebration of 2000 demonstrated. Moreover, as TechCentralStation reader Jay MacDonald comments, police officers feel better about confronting a dangerous situation wearing a bulletproof vest, even though they still risk being shot in the face.

And that's what the public thinks. Three polls--from CBS News/New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the Pew Center-all show lopsided majorities for NMD. As CNN political analyst Bill Schneider said last week, "The public is still inclined to support a missile defense system. Support is never overwhelming, but it is consistent."

Yet as with so many issues, intense opposition from the few-especially when those few are entrenched atop the commanding heights of the intelligentsia-can trump the more diffuse support from the many. That is, if Bush wants to get NMD enacted, he will have to push his message past the salons of the elites, into the living rooms and kitchen tables of the masses. As the saying goes, only when Congress feels the heat will it see the light.

And of course, the issue will heat up further this week, when Don Rumsfeld's Defense Department releases a follow-up to January's DOD report that warned that the US faced a "space Pearl Harbor" from hostile powers developing anti-satellite technology. If opponents despise "Star Wars" now, it's easy to anticipate the boffo decibel-level protest of those same critics when US defenses really do start reaching toward the stars.

Can W. do it? Can he build a consensus for true national security, defined as safety, not MAD-ness? As with any other human endeavor, success has more to do with perspiration than inspiration. By the time he got to the White House, Reagan made great-communicating look easy, but he had been hard at work at it for decades. He once said, "It has taken me many years to get used to seeing myself as others see me. Very few of us ever see ourselves except as we look directly at ourselves in a mirror....It is quite a jolt."

Bush lacks those decades of training in self-presentation. What he has that the Gipper arguably lacked, however, is management training. A Harvard MBA - whose grades, by the way, exceeded Al Gore's post-graduate primping - he has studied delegating with accountability. And he has put those lessons to work in the private sector and in his public life. Supporters say the Hainan Island crisis is evidence Bush has assembled a crack foreign-policy and defense team in particular.

NMD will take time, and Bush must show results soon if he wishes to preside over the deployment of even a rudimentary system. If the proto-Gipper figure in the White House wants to see NMD become real, he and his team will have to break a sweat. The fit team on the field and their well-trained coach, though, are on track to meeting Reagan's classic test of an America "so strong that a potential enemy is not tempted to go adventuring."

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