Daily News (New York)
April 28, 2000, Friday


WASHINGTON - Texas Gov. George W. Bush is a long way from being President, but he has already challenged Russia to a multibillion-dollar nuclear arms race.

In a meeting Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Bush warned that if he is elected, he will develop a missile defense system "to protect ourselves and our allies against a rogue missile launch, against any missile launch."

It's back: Ronald Reagan's full-scale, space-based Star Wars defense shield, the program that threatens to eat up the entire defense budget, plus the tax cut Bush has promised.

At least Reagan offered to share the defense with the Soviet Union so it would not feel itself to be under constant threat of U.S. nuclear attack. Bush makes no such offer. His plan for a full-scale defense simply tells Russia, "We're going to try to strip you of your nuclear deterrent."

The logical Russian response would be to halt any planned missile reductions and, over the long term, deploy more and more nuclear warheads to overwhelm the proposed U.S. defense. "They could have a larger and more dangerous nuclear missile force without spending all that much," says Spurgeon Keeny of the nonprofit Arms Control Association.

Bush's proposal goes far beyond the limited national missile defense the Clinton administration is studying as a way to intercept a missile or two from a rogue state. He wants to intercept "any missile launch," whether aimed at the U.S. or its allies. That means a global defense.

President Clinton's limited proposal, for 250 ground-based interceptors, has been costed out at $60 billion by the General Accounting Office. "A full-fledged strategic defense system would be a hell of a lot more than that," says Dan Smith at the Center for Defense Information. "We'd be talking about spending the entire defense budget on missile defense."

"In the Cold War, the arms race at least had a larger national purpose: to defend us from a Soviet threat," says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "The idiotic thing about this proposal is that it would be an arms race about itself, with no larger purpose."

"It's Reaganism without the Cold War to justify it," says a White House official. Russia is striving to become a capitalist democracy and a friend, yet for no apparent reason, Bush has chosen to stick a finger in its eye.

A more basic question might be how Bush proposes to pay for such a defense. He already proposes spending the entire projected budget surplus on tax cuts. He also has proposed multibillion-dollar new programs for health care and home ownership. Unless he raises taxes, the only way to fund Star Wars is to do what Reagan did: Borrow.

AT THE SAME time that Bush made his threat, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) warned the Russians not to make any new arms-control agreements with the Clinton administration because he, Helms, would block them in the Senate.

Helms can be dismissed as an old-fashioned crank with a certain lack of foresight about future threats. (In 1990, he was one of six votes against the Americans with Disabilities Act, never thinking that in 2000, he would have to ride around on a little scooter, as he does now, because he can no longer walk safely.)

But Bush is supposed to be a new kind of candidate, a compassionate conservative who understands the ways of the world. Instead, he is captive to the most reactionary hawks in the Republican Party, people who hated to see the Cold War end and now seem determined to revive it.

Of course, with Bush, there is always the possibility that he had no idea what he was saying to Ivanov. But the Russians can't take that chance. As far as they know, a possible President has challenged them to an arms race, and they will have to defend themselves.

Copyright 2000 Daily News, L.P.