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Missile Defense Deferral Makes Asia a Safer Place

September 06, 2000|TOM PLATE | Tom Plate is a Times contributing editor and a UCLA professor. E-mail:

Give the outgoing president a hand for a domestically risky and internationally astute decision to delay, at least for the rest of his term, a mammoth national missile defense system that neither the United States nor the world needs. In Asia, a sprawling, politically and ethnically diverse region, many will have good reason to assess this as one of Bill Clinton's finest moments as a world leader.

Clinton did not bow to obvious election-year pressure to keep the Democratic defense posture tougher-than-nails with a costly new missile defense system, which would have more effectively shielded Al Gore from George W. Bush's political flak than Peoria from missiles.

Asia knew what was at stake. A presidential decision to go forward with the unproven missile shield system--which would have cost anywhere from $60 billion to $100 billion and taken years to build--would have triggered a new round of costly and destabilizing arms buildups.

China, rather than forgo its perceived nuclear leverage over Taiwan, would have upped the ante and added to its relatively puny arsenal of about two dozen nuclear missiles, especially if it appeared that the protective shadow of the large U.S. system would take in Taiwan.

In response, India, fearing China's domination, would have ordered new missile production. And, as quick as you can say Kashmir, Pakistan would have followed. Given such an Asian hothouse of nuclear one-upmanship, how could the Japanese, already showing signs of unease with a long postwar posture of pacifism, have remained quiescent? One thing is certain: Had Clinton gone the other way and authorized construction, Asia wouldn't have sat on its hands.

On the Korean peninsula, the impact of a presidential "go" would have been traumatic. A new regional arms race in Asia would have derailed the momentum of South Korea's peace initiative with heavily armed North Korea, which, if not kept in check, would probably have the wherewithal to launch a few nuclear-tipped missiles by 2005. North Korean ally China, along with Russia, had complained bitterly about a U.S. missile shield. From the South Korean perspective, then, a U.S.-supplied national missile defense system, even if it could be made to work, was looking like more trouble than it was worth.

There is no assurance that Bush, or even Gore, will prove as wise on the missile-defense issue. Yet what the next president owes the world is not another missile buildup but a reaffirmation of the spirit of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The key to international stability is the maintenance of limits, not the nuking of them. The ABM pact, signed by the equally hard-headed Richard M. Nixon and Leonid I. Brezhnev, sealed each side's defensive arsenal at a level guaranteeing a mutually fearsome nuclear deterrence. The proposed U.S. program would have violated the ABM treaty. That's why Moscow was howling.

The reaction in Asia to Clinton's turnaround also reflects an appreciation that, for once, an American president faced with a major foreign-policy decision seemed to be listening to someone other than domestic lobbies.

There's of course a risk that Clinton's decision will offer Bush political advantage. Bush, despite the fact that he urged Clinton to defer a decision on NMD to his successor, immediately branded Clinton and Gore as weak on defense for doing exactly that. Leaving Gore to make the case that fewer missiles may actually mean more global safety will strike savvy Asians as a difficult challenge. Indeed, it is now hard to envision Gore surviving this campaign without hearing charges of a new "missile gap." The charge will be fraudulent, just as it was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy hurled a similar allegation at then-Vice President Nixon. There was no missile gap then; there is no missile gap now. There are only good missile decisions and bad ones.

Clinton did his job as president and world leader and made a very good call. Gore should proudly run on that, and Bush, if elected, should sustain it.

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