Providing for the Common Defense

Friday, July 30, 1999

Bill Clinton likes to say that no Russian missiles are targeted at the United States. But we have every reason to believe that there are, or soon will be, North Korean missiles targeted at this country—missiles capable of delivering nuclear or chemical and biological warheads. In a few years, and without much warning, Iranian and Iraqi missiles could also be targeted at us and our allies. What can we do to stop such missiles once they are launched? Not a thing.

None of this was clear a year ago; it is undeniable now. The question is whether our government will build a missile defense system to protect our cities, military bases, and oil fields—and to block the kind of nuclear blackmail suggested by China’s threat, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, to bomb Los Angeles.

A full warning came from the report issued in July 1998 by the commission on missile threats headed by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. This was a bipartisan commission, with members who have often disagreed on weapons issues. The panel had access to all U.S. intelligence sources, and its conclusion was unanimous: Rogue states could “inflict major destruction on the U.S.” within five years of deciding to do so and with little or no notice to us.

This contradicted the Clinton administration line that we would have plenty of notice of a missile attack. That conclusion was based on a 1995 national intelligence estimate that said there would be no threat to the forty-eight contiguous states for the next fifteen years. (Evidently, the administration didn’t think that the constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense” applies to Alaska and Hawaii.) The Rumsfeld report at first seemed to do little to change the views of President Clinton’s top defense advisers. On August 24, five weeks after the report was released, General Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that “the intelligence community can provide the necessary warning” of hostile missile development and added, “We view this as an unlikely development.” A week after that, on August 31, North Korea launched a 3,000-kilometer range, two-stage Taepo Dong 1 missile over Japan. The launch indicates that North Korea has made progress in building the Taepo Dong 2, whose 10,000-kilometer range includes not just Alaska and Hawaii but much of the continental United States. No matter: In September, all but four Senate Democrats blocked action on a bill sponsored by Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, and Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, that would have forced the administration to deploy a missile defense system as soon as technologically feasible.


The case against rapid deployment rests on three arguments: (1) the threat isn’t real, (2) the technology is impossible, (3) it is more important to maintain the antiballistic missile treaty signed with the Soviet Union in 1972, which bars most missile defense systems. The Rumsfeld report demolished argument 1. Argument 2 is still raised by some who note that we have spent large sums on missile defense since Ronald Reagan proposed it in 1983, with disappointing results. But stopping a few rogue state missiles with the computers of 1999 is much easier than stopping hundreds of Soviet missiles with the computers of 1983. As for argument 3, the strategic environment in which the ABM treaty was adopted no longer exists. The argument for the treaty was that a missile defense system might provoke a Soviet or American first strike. But the proximate missile threats now come from states that might risk such a strike.

The Clinton administration argued that there would be no threat to the forty-eight contiguous states for the next fifteen years. Evidently the administration didn’t think that its constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense” applied to Alaska or Hawaii.

The Clinton administration is split on missile defense. The president has called for more spending but a later date for possible deployment—a typical Clintonesque straddle. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who supported missile defense when he was in the Senate, conceded in January that the threat is real and more important than preserving the ABM treaty intact. “We will need to negotiate changes to the ABM treaty,” Cohen said. “If the Russians don’t agree, we have the option to opt out, and we will opt out of the treaty.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered the same message to Russian prime minister Yevgeni Primakov in Moscow. But the next day a National Security aide called the ABM treaty “a cornerstone of strategic stability,” and National Security adviser Sandy Berger used the same words in a February 3 letter threatening a veto if Congress passed the Cochran-Inouye bill. In March, the president said he had “no intention of abrogating the ABM treaty.”

Even so, the bill is likely to pass soon with at least sixty votes. The House is poised then to pass a bill that calls for deployment of an antimissile system, though it sets no deadline. But even though Congress wants to move forward on missile defense, progress is not certain. The technical difficulties are serious, and important administration officials remain lukewarm or even hostile to missile defense—even as the North Koreans and other rogue states take aim at American targets.