Reprinted with permission from Disarmament Diplomacy, October 2000


Each autumn in the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown tries to kick a football held by his friend and tormentor, Lucy. Each year, Lucy assures him that this time she will hold the football still. Charlie Brown overcomes his doubts and runs to the ball. Each year, Lucy yanks the ball away at the last second, and poor Charlie kicks empty air, falling flat on his back.

No one could blame proponents of national missile defence for feeling a bit like Charlie Brown these days. The third President in a row has promised them a robust missile defence system, spent billions on the programme, but, at the last second, left them kicking empty air.

Ronald Reagan began the promises in 1983, but left office in 1989 with nothing deployed and no prospects for realizing his dream. George Bush trimmed down the original Star Wars vision to what he claimed was a more deployable "Global Protection Against Limited Strikes" system of land-, sea- and space-based weapons. But he, too, left office in 1993 without deploying anything. Bill Clinton’s first budget shifted funds from national to theater missile defences. In 1996, a Republican effort to raise missile defence as a campaign issue failed with the voters but scared the White House enough to shift funds back to a national defence system. The Republican-controlled Congress added more money each year. By 2000, the President’s budget proposal had come full circle, with more funds devoted to national missile defence than to theater programmes.

Conservatives disparaged the President’s commitment to missile defence, suspecting an elaborate conspiracy to deny them the prize they seek. But this was a genuine effort. The President’s plan was clear: develop a workable land-based system that could provide some protection against small attacks, line-up the allies in support, win Russian agreement to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and begin construction this year. Clinton would take the issue away from the Republicans (as he did with welfare reform, crime and government spending), preserve the ABM treaty, and prove that Democrats do defence better. But he couldn’t square this particular circle. On September 1, he announced he could not authorize deployment and was deferring the decision to his successor.

The Best Laid Plans

What went wrong? Well, basically, everything: the technology failed, the allies resisted, the Russians refused, even the threat didn’t cooperate by receding not expanding, and, finally, domestic support collapsed. Fortunately for Democratic candidates, the American people do not care much about missile defence, so little if any electoral damage will result. Clinton could have just as easily kept the programme in the research phase (where it properly belongs) with the same political impact. Instead, he came perilously close to triggering a major international crisis and doing serious damage to the international non-proliferation regime. Europeans and most Americans breathed a sigh of relief. But, if the next President isn’t careful, he may replay this drama in the next few years.

The most obvious factor in the President’s decision was the technological failures of the programme. Washington is full of experts who were quick to gloat after the first successful interceptor test (October 1999) that "the critics have been proven wrong" but after the second straight test failure on July 7 this year, the hubris of the programme supporters was exposed in a particularly humiliating fashion. Basic rocket science failed them when the kill vehicle could not separate from the booster. It was obvious to most observers that the programme could not proceed on schedule, though not to the hard-core proponents.

The test failures were not decisive in and of themselves, however. Supporters pressed for deployment up to the last moment. In many ways, the diplomatic failures were more critical. Even if the July test had succeeded, it would still have been impossible for the President to proceed without the support of the allies and the agreement of the Russians.

Cold European Shoulders

When Administration officials fanned out in January and February to European capitals they thought they could quickly get the approval of NATO nations for the President’s plan. The allies, however, were appalled. They saw neither the threat nor the technology the Americans claimed. But they did see the damage missile defence efforts would do to the international security regime. Officials in London, Paris and Berlin told me of their frustrations with the American process. While they had expressed their concerns, they said, they thought the consultation pointless: the Americans had already made up their minds before talking with them. Each briefing trip would be followed not by changes in the deployment plans, but by more trips with longer briefings, condescendingly explaining why European worries were unfounded.

The allied views, however, had a major impact on Russia. New Russian President Vladimir Putin was not as compliant as Boris Yeltsin. As Russian nuclear forces shrink, the protections afforded by the ABM treaty are increasing important (and American ambitions more suspect). The domestic consensus in Russia completely backed Putin’s refusal to negotiate treaty amendments, but he may have had a much more difficult time if President Clinton had been able to go in June to Moscow with the enthusiastic backing of the NATO allies. Without their support it was impossible to get Russian agreement; and without that agreement, impossible to deploy and keep the ABM treaty intact.

The European views also reverberated in the United States, encouraging and validating the same concerns held by many experts and journalists. They reinforced the coordinated efforts of non-governmental organizations determined to stop the Administration’s rush to failure. A stream of articles, issue briefs, meetings, polls, and letters pressed their case. Editorial opinion came out almost unanimously against deployment, even before the July test failure. Major articles, such as Time magazine’s "Mission Impossible?" mocked the missile defence proposals. Prominent experts, including former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defence William Perry and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili wrote the President and personally counselled delay. They were aided by independent expert critiques of the technological flaws in the system, most prominently the work done by scientists with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There were many key components to this alliance against a rushed Presidential decision to deploy. Most importantly, notwithstanding the vigorous propaganda of NMD advocates, there was simply no public groundswell of support for taking such a fateful step at this time. This common sense public stance was encouraged by, and provided a solid platform for, diverse efforts ranging from the grass roots activism of Peace Action, 20/20 Vision and many others, to the political and expert work of the Council for a Livable World and other groups, to the brilliant history provided by Frances Fitzgerald in her book Way Out There in the Blue, to the personal "upreach" interventions of the Presidents of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that resulted in the Nunn-Perry-Shalikashvili letter. Taken together, this work and publicity had a profound impact. The pressures (both real and imagined) for deployment were strong. Despite the diplomatic and technological failures, President Clinton was still weighing various compromise options. But by the time of the July test domestic support had completely collapsed. Republican proponents saw the Clinton plan as too little; Democrats saw it as too much, too soon, at too high a diplomatic price. The President had nowhere to go but delay.

What Next?

Those who want to plan for the future debates on missile defence might want to consult as a strategy guide the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Every week the valiant Buffy slays the demons emerging from the mouth of Hell (which, unfortunately, happens to be located just underneath her home town). But the next week, they are back. Sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger, but never permanently dead. Missile defence proponents, of course, are not actually demonic, but they do seem to have more lives than most people do. They are defeated but undeterred. Their strength will depend, in part, on the outcome of the 2000 elections.

When the elections are over, missile defences will be deprived of the main fuel propelling the programme: partisan Presidential politics. As the supply of hot air decreases, the issue will deflate, but not disappear. The selection of the next President will be important for the programme, but not as decisive as some might think.

If Governor George Bush becomes President, he has promised to conduct a comprehensive strategic review before making any decisions. The review will likely verify the candidate’s campaign planks to reduce dramatically the number of deployed US strategic nuclear weapons and, concurrently, proceed with missile defences. Many of the Bush advisors are openly contemptuous of the Clinton design for ground-based interceptors in Alaska and it is very possible that this plan will be scrapped in favor of an all-out push for preferred sea-based defences.

The main obstacle will be that there is nothing to deploy. Even with increased funding and the highest possible priority, land-based defences could not be deployed until 2006 or 2007 at the earliest, while sea-based defences could not be fielded until 2010. Space-based systems cannot even be considered until the next decade.

General John Costello, commander of the Army Space and Missile Defence Command, recently warned that trying to fit boost-phase interceptors on Navy ships - the current fad among proponents - would require "a major reworking" of the Aegis system and its 12 million lines of computer code as well as significant structural changes in the ships themselves. He argues, for example, that the vertical launch system aboard the ships is not big enough or sturdy enough to withstand the stresses from launching the types of high-energy interceptors needed for boost-phase intercept. "When you boil all this down," Costello said in August, "what you end up with is this: the only NMD options that can be deployed in the near term - by 2005, and frankly that date is even a little in question - is the land-based option. No other option, no matter how much money is thrown at it, is possible before the end of the next decade."

Thus, once in office, Bush will realize that he cannot field any useful military capability anytime during his first term in office and probably not during a second term. But he will know with great certainty that if he abrogates the ABM treaty, he will have an international crisis that may dominate his first year. This may be why Bush supporters beat back an effort at the Republican convention in July to insert into the party platform a pledge to abrogate the ABM treaty. This may be why several of his advisors now say that they would try to negotiate amendments to the treaty with the Russians, not abruptly trash the treaty. All this will take time, and - particularly if the Alaska plan is abandoned - will not necessitate a deployment decision for at least a year.

If Vice-President Al Gore wins the election and if the Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives, as seems likely, missile defence efforts will continue but at a much reduced level. The decisive factor will be the House elections, not the Presidential contest. Gore will likely continue not only research but deployment efforts. He, much more so than Clinton, helped fashion the "New Democrats" positions on defence, forged with former congressman Les Aspin and Sam Nunn in the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s. Like his persistent, though unsuccessful, effort to build a Midgetman small, mobile ICBM instead of the ten-warhead MX missile, Gore prefers to promote strategic weapons he believes can be stabilizing, rather than oppose such weapons directly.

However, many Democratic members in the House do not share this perspective and are likely to be much more critical of national missile defence, whomever is elected President. Most importantly, merely by winning a majority in the House, the Democrats will have dethroned the major political base for missile defence, the far right wing of the Republican party in the House. This is where the current drive began. The ten-point "Contract with America" drafted by Newt Gingrich in 1994 had only one defence plank: deploy missile defences. Since that election, House Republicans have skilfully and relentlessly pushed the issue with hundreds of speeches, hearings, investigations, commissions and reports. With the most radical faction of the party ousted from leadership posts, the House would restrain the President’s budget excesses and restore some balance to the oversight responsibilities of the Congress. There might once again be hearings on missile defence that honestly debated the merits rather than relentlessly promoted the party line. Senate proponents may remain in the majority in that chamber, but they will be an overall minority in the government and, thus, at a decisive legislative disadvantage.

Stormy Weather

Under these circumstances, even if interceptor tests next year produce one or two hits, momentum towards deployment will slow considerably. If President Gore were to commission an independent review of nuclear policy similar to that conducted by retired general Brent Scowcroft for President Reagan, he may be able to consolidate a new strategic consensus for fewer nuclear weapons and for research, not rushed deployment, of missile defence. Continued Republican control of the House, on the other hand, or over estimates of the technology available, or a panicked reaction to some new international development, could cause the new President to tilt towards a deployment decision. Or there could be some political miscalculation that encourages the President, for example, to package ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty with a commitment to deploy missile defences. One thing is certain: missile defence proponents will stay in the game. Well-funded, politically skilled, and with undying faith in their vision, they will be back. The debate will quiet down through the winter and spring, may begin to pick up again in the summer and could be back in force by next autumn. Just in time for Lucy to pull out her football.