Bill Clinton returned from the Helsinki summit Saturday claiming significant achievements. On closer inspection, they are not altogether evident. The most important issue discussed with Russian President Boris Yeltsin was nuclear missiles and missile defense, and it is here that the agreement reached was the most ambiguous.
The nuclear issues are the ones that most affect the West. Russia is still in possession of a huge nuclear arsenal and of course the Russian Duma has never ratified the four-year-old Start II agreement that was to have reduced stockpiles on both sides over a period of 10 years. But now Mr. Yeltsin promises to go home and urge the Duma to ratify Start II and to proceed with a Start III agreement that would cut warhead numbers still further. It is a difficult commitment to credit.
Which brings up the more manageable issue of missile defense. Though there are varying interpretations, it appears that Mr. Clinton won these rather ephemeral Start offerings with last minute concessions he needn't have on U.S. missile defense systems. Mr. Clinton agreed to a clear distinction between a national-based missile defense system, which is supposed to defend against inter-continental ballistic missiles and is limited by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and "theater" missile defense systems, which defend against shorter-range attacks that are not covered by the treaty. In other words, he did a deal on theater defenses.
He agreed to limit the capability of U.S. theater systems; they cannot be tested against enemy missiles that can travel further than 3,500 kilometers or faster than 5 kilometers per second. He also pledged a yearly exchange of detailed information on the systems and to "not develop, test or deploy space-based theater missile defense interceptors." Space systems just happen to be the most effective form of missile defense.
While these limitations will allow the development of the six U.S. antimissile systems in the works, including the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system and the Navy's more advanced Upper Tier, it stifles further progress unnecessarily. It was for this reason that Republicans argued against agreements that further define ICBM--and theater missile defense.
"The ABM treaty was not designed to impose limits on our theater missile defense systems, only on national defense systems," GOP Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon told the Washington Post over the weekend. "Imposing limits on interceptor speeds will inevitably result in the future dumbing down of theater defense systems, putting the lives of our soldiers overseas at greater risk."
The concession becomes all the more questionable when considering the fact that the Russians did not need additional incentives to push for Start III. Expediting Start III, as agreed in Helsinki, means that the Russian military--which can't even pay its own soldiers--will not have to build a whole new line of missiles as would have been necessary under Start II.
And what's even more astonishing is that the ABM treaty, which the Russians claim is being undermined by the development of U.S. theater defensive systems, has been violated by Moscow. As former Start negotiator and retired U.S. Gen. Edward Rowny pointed out in the Journal in December, it was the Kremlin that broke the ABM treaty by building a phased array radar at Krasnoyarsk. Moreover, Mr. Rowny pointed out, five years after the ABM Treaty the Russians broke their promises to limit strategic offensive arms, "surpassing the U.S. in strategic offensive weapons by 50%."
The Journal's Melanie Kirkpatrick pointed out last year that members of Congress had to sue President Clinton to try to make him abide by the Ballistic Missile Defense Act, which mandated a specific timetable for the development of Thaad and Upper Tier. Clearly, this is a President who doesn't place much importance on defending Americans from nuclear missiles, launched from any source.
Congressional Republicans warned the President in a letter not to conclude an agreement that would "compromise our ability to protect U.S. citizens, troops, and allies from terrorist missile attacks." On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott urged Mr. Clinton to respect the Senate's advise-and-consent role and submit any ABM agreements for approval. It will be interesting to see how easy that will be after the Congress has had a closer look at what Mr. Clinton gave away.
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