TCS Daily

Joltin' Joe Biden Fouls One Off

By Nick Schulz - December 19, 2001 12:00 AM

Sen. Joe Biden has brass.

In one of the most unfortunately timed public appearances in recent memory given just one day before the terrorist attacks on 9/11 the Delaware senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared at the National Press Club to deliver a speech titled U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Defining Our Interests in a Changing World. As it turned out, thats not really what the speech was about. It was, instead, a breathless denouncement of the current administrations national security pursuits and a rambling rant about the problems with building defenses against ballistic missile attack.

It was a typical Biden speech too long, too undisciplined, too unfocused, filled with a few attempts at humor and one exceptionally touching anecdote about his friend Sen. Jesse Helms. (For a definitive take on the Biden rhetorical style, see this New Republic piece.)

And until 8:46 a.m. the following morning, it was whispered in Washington and Wilmington that for all its flaws (bombed jokes and all), this speech might mark the beginning of Bidens efforts to cultivate the national reputation necessary to make a run for the White House in 04.

But all of a sudden, in the aftermath of the attacks, his broadside against the administrations foreign and defense policy including several uncharitable swipes at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left the uncomfortable pall of an ill-timed and petty cocktail party remark. Open mouth, insert foot.

But now hes back at it again. Writing in the Washington Post, Biden responds to the Bush administration decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty and boils down to 800 words what it took him over 5,000 to say at the National Press Club. The basic argument goes like this: missile defenses are costly, they wont work, and they will trigger an arms race in Asia. Therefore, we should not pursue missile defenses.

Lets analyze these parts so we can see why Biden, and many many others who hold this view, are so drastically wrong in their analysis.

Biden says a missile defense system would be costly. But costs are relative. What would be the cost of a single nuclear missile hitting a city such as Washington, New York, Los Angeles? From what happened in the World Trade Center attacks, we can agree: Tens to hundreds of billions of dollars and more. So the relevant question isnt whether or not missile defenses will be expensive, but rather will they be expensive compared to what? The cost of vulnerability to attack make the missile defense price tag look small by comparison.

So we move to the next line of criticism: will it work? Critics of missile defense couch this question in a loaded manner. For them, the answer is always a resounding no. So the question is asked in a way that makes any answer, other than the one they are predisposed to approve of, unacceptable. Presented this way, it becomes the kind of question that philosophers deem non-falsifiable.

Will it work? Well, we wont know for certain until we pursue development and testing. Although, after decades of having our hands tied by the ABM treaty, preliminary tests have been surprisingly promising. History is filled with examples of critics claiming this or that technological advance or development will never work. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong man has landed on the moon but cold fusion hasnt worked. But asking a question you yourself have already answered is hardly an argument.

That brings us to the final point. Will pursuing a missile defense lead to an arms race? This is certainly a concern. But Biden and missile defense critics fail to see the implications of their own logic. After all, an aggressive and rising China that wants nothing more than to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia and has been building its military capabilities in recent decades has every incentive to arm itself regardless of whether or not the United States builds a missile defense. Indeed, it had been doing this before the United States opted out of the ABM Treaty.

Applying the logic of the missile defense critics would dictate that the United States should retreat entirely from the western Pacific. After all, part of the reason the Communist Chinese have built their military as aggressively as they have is in order to project power in a region where the only other power is the United States. Certainly, by the logic of missile defense critics, a complete U.S. retreat from the Far East would prompt China to scale back its military presence and ease tensions in the region. So why dont Biden and others advocate that approach? Drawing the line of acceptable forward power at missile defense is entirely arbitrary.

Which gets us to whats really going on in this debate. Biden denounces supporters of missile defense as being stuck in Cold War-think, failing to appreciate the realities of a changed world. They have not come to understand the [Berlin] wall is down and the last time they were in power it was up, he said at the Press Club in Washington. Half this city doesn`t realize that.

But it is missile defense critics who fail to understand how the world has changed. As my colleague Ken Adelman points out succinctly, American military power prevails. In other words, the only thing bullies and tyrants such as those in Tora Bora or Beijing understand is the language of military power and military respect. For the United States to, in effect, announce that it will abandon reasonable efforts to defend itself, it sends a signal around the world that the United States is soft and weak. And this is a miscalculation that carries with it severe consequences. The pursuit of missile defense is a legitimate national security interest, and the United States should not be bashful in asserting that position.

The Bush administration was correct to withdraw from the ABM treaty, and despite the hysterical protestations of Sen. Biden and his ideological comrades, pursuing any and all legitimate means of military defense reflect U.S. values and interests and, most importantly, it will make the world a safer place.

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