Byliner: Senator Joseph Biden on "Missile Defense Delusion"
(Op-ed column from The Washington Post on 12/19/01) (880)
19 December 2001
(This column by Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, first appeared in the Washington Post
December 19, 2001 and is in the public domain. No republication
Missile Defense Delusion
By Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Washington being what it is, the idea that politics and ideology
should be set aside for a higher purpose may seem a quaint, naive
sentiment. But few would argue with the statement that the ultimate
test in deciding to scrap a treaty that has helped keep the peace for
30 years is whether it makes the United States more or less secure. In
that light, President Bush's decision to unilaterally walk away from
the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is a serious mistake.
No one doubts we live in a dangerous world and that our enemies are
ruthless. But a "Star Wars" defense, assuming it could be made to
work, would address only what the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue is the
least likely threat to our national security.
One of the lessons we should have learned from the devastating attack
of Sept. 11 is that terrorists determined to do this nation harm can
employ a wide variety of means, and that weapons of mass destruction
-- chemical, biological or even nuclear -- need not arrive on the tip
of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a return address. That's
why the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue that an ICBM launch ranks last on
the "Threat Spectrum," while terrorist attacks constitute the greatest
potential threat to our national security.
The administration's obsession with missile defense -- with a price
tag in excess of a quarter-trillion dollars for the layered program on
the president's wish list -- is doubly troubling because of the
attention and resources being diverted from critical efforts to
address genuine threats. While the president says nonproliferation is
a high priority, his actions speak louder. Notwithstanding promises of
new efforts, the fiscal year 2002 budget that he requested would have
cut more than $100 million out of programs designed to corral Russia's
"loose nukes," provide help that Russia has requested to destroy its
chemical weapons stockpile and prevent unemployed Russian scientists
from selling their services to terrorist organizations.
Only when it comes to missile defense is the administration pushing
hard. But nothing could be more damaging to global nonproliferation
efforts than to go forward with Star Wars. Russia has enough offensive
weapons to overwhelm any system we could devise, so the real issue is
what happens in China and throughout Asia.
China currently possesses no more than two dozen ICBMs. Our own
intelligence services estimate that moving forward with national
missile defense could trigger a tenfold increase in China's expansion
of its nuclear capability. And that doesn't take into account likely
Chinese behavior if an arms race ensues, something many experts argue
is inevitable when both India and Pakistan respond as expected by
ratcheting up their nuclear programs.
Thus, the cost of unilaterally walking away from the ABM Treaty and
forging ahead with national missile defense includes not only
dangerous neglect of the real threats we face but the likelihood that
we will unleash a new arms race that will create a nuclearized Asia.
Finally, Sept. 11 clarified the fact that the world is in transition
from old Cold War alignments to new patterns of conflict and
cooperation. Managing such a transition wisely will determine whether
we take advantage of new opportunities or whether we allow ideological
zealotry to control strategic doctrine.
Al Qaeda's eager search for weapons of mass destruction highlights the
importance of broad nonproliferation efforts and our need to work in
concert with like-minded partners. The president skillfully worked to
build a coalition to fight international terrorism. That success has
created an environment for a changed world with the potential for old
enemies to come together. Out of the Sept. 11 tragedy we have
opportunities to pivot toward promising new relationships, following
up on the cooperation of the moment with a realignment of forces for
decades to come.
Indeed, there is some cause for hope. The United States and Russia are
making real progress to reduce strategic offensive forces. Secretary
of State Colin Powell has indicated we are relatively close to a
formal agreement in this regard -- presumably one that binds our
countries and provides for verification and transparency.
So far, the administration's conduct of the war on terrorism has shown
discipline, perseverance and an ability to forge international
consensus. But the war is only three months old, and the new patterns
of cooperation and support are young and fragile. We must nourish them
and build on them, rather than taking unilateral foreign policy moves
that will make us less secure.
Today the doors to international cooperation and American leadership
are wide open. But if we slam them shut too often, we will lose the
best chance in a generation to work with allies to build a more secure
(Senator Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, is chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee)
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