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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Star Wars: The sequel

Hey, what ever happened to arms control? Well, here comes the new Bill Clinton, Star Warrior

By Mark Thompson/Washington

February 15, 1999
Web posted at: 11:58 a.m. EST (1658 GMT)

TIME magazine

Bill Clinton has repeatedly dazzled Americans with his 180[degree] transformations. But few have been as startling as the one that emerged largely unheralded from the thick bulk of the fiscal year 2000 budget: Bill Clinton, Star Warrior.

If memory serves, Clinton came to the White House determined to shift U.S. foreign policy from its dependence on weaponry and cold war alliances to the peace-era pursuit of civilian technologies and free trade. He salted his national-security bureaucracy with arms-control advocates who had been frozen out during 12 years of build-'em-up Republican rule. In particular, he promised to slash as much as $20 billion from Ronald Reagan's beloved missile-defense program, and after he had been in office barely 100 days, the Clinton Pentagon killed the stripped-down Star Wars system, which had been going nowhere for years.

Disregard previous orders. It's back to the future after Clinton this month sent Congress a military budget proposing to pump $6.6 billion into development of a national missile-defense shield by 2005. Forget that Democrats argued for years that such a system would never work. That was then. Now it's the newest item in their lengthening list of conservative takeovers. Defense hawks have been maddeningly one-upped by Clinton's adoption of a snazzy constellation of space-based sensors and ground-based missiles that would stand guard over all 50 states, poised to destroy a handful of incoming missiles. In time-tested Star Wars practice, the President is expected to decide in June 2000 whether to deploy the system, even though tests on key components--such as the missile interceptor and the rocket it will ride on--won't be completed until three years after that.

Apparently, in a White House with its eyes firmly fixed on the 2000 election, the idea of co-opting such a Republican hobbyhorse, especially one likely to win congressional approval, was just too delicious. America's weapons manufacturers love the system and its total $11 billion price tag, and will lobby strongly for it. But in Russia the prospect of another era of costly weapons building, similar to the one that helped bust the former Soviet Union, is driving the leadership wild. Washington's planned system could violate the venerable 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the bedrock on which all subsequent arms-reduction treaties with Moscow rest. And Russia still possesses a vast stockpile of ICBMs able to reach the U.S. If Washington proceeds with this missile defense, says Moscow, it can say goodbye to any cutbacks in the bristling but rusting Russian arsenal.

The Administration insists that its rightward lurch is the only proper response to a new threat. While the public was fixated on Monica last summer, officials were gravely reading a report on the potential of a missile attack by so-called rogue states, issued by an independent panel headed by Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary under Gerald Ford. It concluded that within five years, ICBMs launched by North Korea and a few other nations might be able to reach U.S. territory. In August, Pyongyang underscored the danger when it fired a Taepo Dong 1 missile that fell into the Pacific after flying over Japan and showed it was nearly capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii. The Iranians have tested an intermediate-range missile and in several years may have an intercontinental one. There is no hot line to renegade states, the U.S. points out, and their leaders may not be completely rational, which makes traditional deterrence risky.

The threat is so grave, Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned last month, that the U.S. might have to consider junking the ABM treaty if Moscow won't agree to changes that would permit a defensive deployment. Cohen's suggestion plainly angered the Russians, and in a late-January visit, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did her best to calm them. But Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov wasn't appeased. "We believe that further cuts in strategic offensive weapons," he said, "can be done only if there is a clear vision for preserving and observing the ABM treaty." The Administration's new plans may undercut any hope of winning long-delayed approval in the hostile Russian parliament for START II, the 1993 agreement to cut sharply each nation's nuclear arsenal, to just 3,500 long-range nuclear weapons. Ratification of real reductions is threatened, says Alexei Arbatov, a treaty supporter who is deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee, "not by our reactionary opponents but by our friends and partners in Washington."

Brent Scowcroft, George Bush's National Security Adviser, thinks it's time for imaginative thinking to rejuvenate the moribund process of eliminating existing missiles and nukes. "We ought to sit down with the Russians and say, 'The cold war is over. Let's look at reducing nuclear weapons again, at the ABM treaty, proliferation, and let's work out something together,'" he says. "Instead, we've said we want to change the ABM treaty, which just deepens their humiliation, because they can't keep up with us."

Republicans are cheering that Star Wars is back. Their efforts got a boost last week when U.S. officials said that China has tripled its missile force near Taiwan. Beijing is alarmed at U.S.-led discussions about building a missile shield in East Asia, a system that could one day help protect countries such as Japan and South Korea. Albright will discuss the buildup when she visits China in early March.

At least one major problem remains. A lot of experts don't believe the missile shield will work. Even if it can be made to thwart incoming ICBMs, they argue, it will be worthless against the low-tech route that nukes or biochemical warheads would be more likely to take. A renegade state could sneak a nuclear bomb into New York City in a truck or the hold of a freighter, or simply lob a Scud-like missile full of lethal germs into Manhattan from 20 miles offshore, neatly passing underneath the shield. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff "worry more about a suitcase bomb going off in one of our cities," Cohen admits. "Very few countries are going to launch an ICBM, knowing that they are going to face virtual elimination."

If Bill Clinton, arms controller, has any doubts about his sudden metamorphosis into Nuke Skywalker, he may want to recall the last time he made such a bold declaration on missile defense. Before his 1996 re-election, he lambasted a G.O.P. proposal to build "a costly missile-defense system that could be obsolete tomorrow." He charged that the price tag was too high and the threat too murky. "It would violate the arms-control agreements that we have made, and these agreements make us more secure," he declared. "That is the wrong way to defend America." That may still be true, but the President's amazing about-face has fundamentally trumped the debate. Star Wars: the Sequel has officially opened.

--With reporting by Andrew Meier/Moscow and Douglas Waller/Washington


Cover Date: February 22, 1999

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