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By Ken Adelman - May 1, 2001 12:00 AM

President Bush's speech on ballistic missile defense (BMD) is a reaction to "the Kyoto complex," where he made a big (and the right) decision (getting out of the protocol) without consultation. Now on BMD, he's all consultation and no big decision.

Acting much like his father in valuing "prudence," and contrary to his welcome boldness, is okay for now. But the consultation trio - deputies Paul Wolfowitz, Rich Armitage, and Steve Hadley - should have as its motto: "Don't Ask, Do Tell."

Years ago, wags in Brussels described NATO as an alliance with 15 chimpanzees and one gorilla, which acted like a chimpanzee.

American officials would "consult" Allies, as if they had real resources and responsibilities to orchestrate democracies and maintain stability. Only the United States can do that.

Indeed at the outset of the Clinton Administration, Secretary of State Warren Christopher went around Europe to "consult" on Bosnia. He only asked, and didn't tell. The result was a disaster, which lasted another couple of years since the Allies could never get their act together.

The Alliance works best when the United States sets a clear direction, establishes steps to get there, and gives its Allies sufficient time and support to re-arrange themselves accordingly.

No surprises but, then again, no real desire to engage the Europeans too much in actual problem-solving.

We know that, left to themselves, the Europeans would never embark upon ballistic missile defense. That's partly because it's something new. Novelty constitutes something of a cultural divide: Americans embrace most anything new, while Europeans eschew almost anything new.

Moreover, European leaders have come to praise the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as "the cornerstone of strategic stability," just as the accord's usefulness has fallen.

After all, the Russians never adored the ABM Treaty enough to abide by it. Rather, the Russians cherish the ABM Treaty because we abide by it.

Under the treaty's terms, the U.S. can't build a real missile defense. Under the Soviet economic system -- and Russia's today -- they couldn't build one.

European leaders are reluctant to acknowledge that the rationale for the ABM Treaty was convoluted from the get-go. The premise of the accord never made much sense.

Why allow more offensive missiles but prohibit real protection against them? The Cold War doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" -- that nations are safest when most vulnerable to being annihilated -- has only become more ludicrous over time.

While the official Bush trio can consult, they should appreciate that no one they meet is a signatory to the ABM Treaty. This is a bilateral agreement between American and Soviet representatives. It should remain of primary interest to American and Russian publics today. Signatories have more knowledge of, and more say over, their own treaties.

What the consult-ers can do is to share the common-sense message that future protection should trump past arms-control theology. And share U.S. intelligence findings that missile threats have become more urgent and allow less warning than previously realized.

For the U.S. and its Allies to do nothing about a growing threat is downright irresponsible.

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