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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
March/April 2001
Volume 54, Number 2
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
Degraded Lands: South China's Untapped Resource
U.S. Stalls BWC Protocol Negotiations
Dual-Use Exports Liberalized
Making Your Views Heard to Congress
Another Intelligence Review Underway


By Robert Sherman

What drives the Administration's support for National Missile Defense?

To most of us, it is obvious that National Missile Defense (NMD) can be readily circumvented, will cost enormous amounts of money, alienates our allies, risks re-igniting a nuclear arms race, and is unlikely to work. So why is the Administration so determined to do it?

Some have suggested to me that it is a simple "merchants of death" cash payoff in which defense contractors contribute to the campaigns of the President and his supporters, and are rewarded by this mother of all military spending programs. But I do not believe this is a significant factor. Defense contributions come mainly from ongoing large production programs in which the contractors have been identified, and Missile Defense has not reached that stage.

On the contrary, NMD is a political weapon. Consider the following three-step process:

  1. Polls consistently show that when asked, "Do you think the US has a defense against ballistic missiles?", a majority of Americans believe we do.
  2. When told that we do not and asked if we should, a majority answer that of course if there's a threat, we should have a defense against it, particularly since American technology seems able to do anything.
  3. When told about NMD's ready circumventability, its staggering cost, and its dubious technology, most positions turn to skeptical opposition.

The key political fact is that, while step 3 requires several minutes of discussion, steps 1 and 2 lend themselves to ten-second soundbites and to campaign TV commercials. NMD advocates see a political goldmine, in which they can do a soundbite attack on a NMD opponent more handily than the opponent can do a soundbite counterattack. It is true that missile defense has far lower public salience than such issues as crime, the economy, education, etc., so the electoral margin to be gained on missile defense is probably less than one half of one percent. But as we saw in the 2000 election, 0.5 percent can have large consequences.

The key requirement for NMD opponents, then, is that of public education. This requires engaging NMD supporters on their terms by stating the case against NMD in the simplest, shortest, most soundbite-worthy terms that can be devised.

So what lines of reasoning work?

Polling and focus groups indicate that these arguments are the most effective:

  • Eminent scientists point out that NMD is very unlikely to work;
  • NMD will drain funds from more useful defense programs;
  • "Suitcase bombs" can circumvent it;
  • It is a boondoggle for defense contractors (but as I say above, I don't believe this is the main driver behind NMD, notwithstanding that the American people seem ready to believe it is);
  • It will require us to abrogate treaties.

These arguments are the least effective:

  • Our allies don't like NMD;
  • Russia & China don't like it;
  • There is not likely to be a missile threat;
  • NMD will re-start the Cold War;
  • It is a Ronald Reagan program revived.

What are the concise, catchy, memorable ways to frame these arguments? Send the ones you've found to be most effective to me at [email protected]. I'll print the most promising ones in the next Public Interest Report.