Washington Post
February 9, 2000
Pg. 21

The Next Presidentís First Obligation

By Henry Kissinger

The Clinton administration is approaching the congressionally mandated deadline for a decision on whether to deploy a national missile defense with all the ambivalence of a dreaded visit to a dentist, mitigated by the fantasy that some fortuitous event might yet make it unnecessary. It is engaged in discussions with Russia about modifying the 1972 ABM treaty, which precludes a national missile deployment. And it does so even though it has not yet made a decision as to whether to deploy, or exactly how.

In my view, no administration serious about national security will be able to evade the need for missile defense. But an election year may not be the opportune time to choose the most effective option. And in the absence of such a decision, talks with Moscow make little sense.

In the light of recent ambiguous test results and imminent electoral preoccupations, it would be desirable to delay a final technical judgment until a new administration is in place. And we should suspend further talks with Moscow until we have decided on the kind of missile defense most in the national interest. That decision should define the parameters of the dialogue. But since the strategic importance of missile defense is independent of its technical characteristics, the interim should be used for educating the American public and for dialogue with our allies in Europe and Asia.

A president's first obligation is to provide for the safety of the American people by deterring attacks on the homeland and our allies, and by reducing their impact should they take place. The danger is real and growing. In 1998 the bipartisan Rumsfeld Commission unanimously concluded the threat posed by a number of hostile emerging states "is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence community."

Furthermore, "the U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment" of missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory with biological, chemical or nuclear warheads. In other words, we are not dealing with an academic inside-the-Beltway arms-control debate but with a challenge to the very heart of American security.

Nevertheless, national missile defense has become one of those symbolic issues around which elite opinion has been divided for decades, regardless of intervening political and technological changes. Four arguments are generally put forward in opposition to a national missile defense--and seem to me to be accepted by many in the administration, especially on the foreign policy side of it:

(1) that a workable system cannot be designed;

(2) that if it was, it would undermine the long-established American strategic doctrine called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD);

(3) that it violates the 1972 ABM Treaty and would jeopardize the entire gamut of Russo-American relations;

(4) that our European allies will interpret an antimissile program as decoupling the defense of Europe from America, because the United States might be perceived as withdrawing into a Fortress America. (Interestingly, this argument is never heard from our Asian allies.)

I am not a technical expert, but I have been exposed to enough briefings to be convinced that the technical problems can be solved, provided Congress and the administration are united in their commitment to the concept. This is obviously the view of countries possessing missile programs of their own, as is shown by the virulence of their opposition to American missile defenses.

As for the argument that national missile defense runs counter to the longstanding strategic concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, a reassessment of that essentially nihlist doctrine is long overdue.

Advocates of the doctrine converge on the proposition that nuclear war is best prevented by guaranteeing the most cataclysmic outcome. Hence, they oppose any strategy based on discriminating targeting, and passionately resist any attempt to construct defensive systems. Security is sought in the unprecedented attempt to leave one's own civilian population totally vulnerable to nuclear attack while targeting the civilian population of the other side. In these terms, defense policy turns on itself. It becomes anti-defense, to guarantee the total vulnerability of the population.

This theory is better suited to an academic than to a national leader required to make fateful decisions in the real world. It is one thing to theorize about mutual deterrence based on the threat of mutual suicide, quite another to implement such a concept in an actual crisis. Who is to assume the moral responsibility for recommending resort to a strategy that guarantees tens of millions dead on both sides?

In any event, whatever tenuous plausibility the MAD theory had in a two-power world disappears when eight nations have tested nuclear weapons and many rogue regimes are working feverishly on the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. If one of these destroyed an American city by accident or design, how would an American president explain his refusal to protect our country against even limited attacks?

Since I have held and published these views for four decades, one is entitled to ask why an ABM Treaty was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, when I served as national security adviser. The blunt answer is that the Nixon administration started its term in office determined to move away from the MAD concept but was partially forced back into its frameworrk by congressional and bureaucratic pressures. Early in his first term, Nixon ordered the Pentagon to develop a strategy concentrating on military rather than civilian targets. In 1969 he also submitted to Congress a missile-defense program. Twelve sites were to protect missile silos and the population against limited attacks from the Soviet Union, against attacks from emerging nuclear powers and against accidental and unauthorized launch from any source.

Nixon's ABM program was assailed by exactly the same arguments one hears today: that it would not work; that it was destabilizing; that it would weaken the Atlantic Alliance.

Amid the passions of the Vietnam protest and in a Congress dominated by liberal Democrats, these criticisms merged with the prevailing assault on the defense budget as a whole. Nixonís ABM authorization passed the Senate by one vote. But in subsequent years, Congress used the appropriations process to destroy what it had narrowly failed to defeat in the original authorization. Each year, the number of ABM sites was reduced by Congress until, by late 1971, only two remained. And the Soviets, aware of these pressures, were stonewalling discussions on limiting their offensive buildup, then proceeding at the rate of more than 200 long-range missile launchers a year.

In this atmosphere, the Defense Department, in the person of Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, wrote President Nixon in late spring of 1970 that a new arms-control agreement was needed as soon as possible lest the Soviets outstrip us in their building program of strategic forces.

Nixon was far from converted to the MAD theory, but, faced with a Congress that was gutting the ABM program, decided to freeze--and thereby preserve--a nucleus ABM deployment in return for equivalent limits on the Soviets' own ABM deployment, and to use that decision to put a ceiling on the Soviet offensive buildup. At the Moscow summit of 1972, the Soviets accepted the American insistence that offensive weapons be limited simultaneously with defensive weapons.

This history is relevant because many who treat the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of arms control misunderstand the original impetus for it. And the contrast between the situation of 1972 and today's is stark. The Rumsfeld Commission has unanimously described the new security environment. One signatory, the Soviet Union, has disappeared as a legal entity. Missile technologies have evolved in sophistication and proliferated into nations (North Korea, Iran, Iraq) not even remotely considered candidates when the agreement was concluded. In short, in the existing strategic environment the ABM Treaty constrains the nation's defense to an intolerable degree.

As for European reactions, it must be kept in mind that our NATO allies have made comparable arguments about every major new American weapons program for the past 30 years--from "flexible response" in the l960s, to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and intermediate-range missiles in the 1980s. Opposing new offensive weapons placed in Europe in the 1980s and new defensive weapons based in America in the '90s, these critics have charged on each occasion that the new programs would decouple Americans from Europe and torpedo important negotiations with Moscow. In each case the critics have been proved wrong.

In the Nixon administration, the ABM program broke the deadlock in East-West negotiations. In the Reagan administration, SDI and intermediate-range missiles in Europe brought the Soviets back to the conference table. And with 20,000 nuclear weapons in the Russian arsenal, it will be many decades if ever before an American missile-defense program shuts down all Russian nuclear options, even as it constrains many of them. This should give time for an East-West diplomacy designed to move a nuclear conflict between the two largest nuclear countries to an ever-lower level of probability.

Finally, once Europe disentangles itself from outdated slogans, it will come to understand that a system that protects America against limited nuclear attacks, and even more against rogue nuclear blackmail, will enhance rather than diminish our willingness to defend our allies. An America totally vulnerable to any kind of nuclear threat is much more likely to shrink from fulfilling alliance obligations. And sooner or later Europe will recognize these arguments apply as well to the defense of European territory against missile attack.

China, which is not a signatory of the ABM Treaty, has been vocal in its criticism of an American missile defense. No doubt China is more seriously affected by a missile-defense system than Russia, because its arsenal is so much smaller and will remain so for several decades. Beijingís concern that a U.S. missile defense would to some extent blunt the impact of the ballistic missile arsenal it has been building at a rapid rate is understandable. I have demonstrated a long commitment to cooperative relations with China, and I strongly oppose the tendencies toward confrontation emerging in both countries. But we cannot leave our people defenseless in the face of foreseeable nuclear threats from so many quarters to placate even a country so important as China.

For all these reasons, a nationwide missile-defense system should be deployed as soon as is technologically feasible. An impressive array of technical options--land, sea or space--cannot be adequately explored until we overcome ABM Treaty restrictions. At this writing, our national priorities with respect to missile defense are the reverse of what is needed. We are talking to Russia about modifying the existing system without having as yet decided what program best serves our security and that of our allies.

Until we have chosen the appropriate national missile defense, negotiations with Moscow about modifying the ABM treaty take place in a vacuum. A quick-fix solution is foolhardy and dangerous, for it risks putting our leaders 10 years from now, when technology has moved on, into the same straitjacket they find themselves in today. Only when we have defined our necessities can we conduct a meaningful dialogue on whether to amend or, if necessary, revoke the treaty.