The Indianapolis News
July 27, 1998
Alan W. Dowd

A bipartisan commission established by Congress has released its findings on the ballistic missile threat facing America. The news is not good.

Even though President Clinton and his national security strategists contend that the ballistic missile threat is 10-15 years off, the commission unanimously concluded that rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea are within just a few years of developing long-range missiles. The commission warned that a handful of others could acquire advanced missilery on the global market in the near future. Moreover, the commission ominously reminded us that China’s 20 or so intercontinental missiles and Russia’s 6,000 nuclear warheads pose a serious long-term threat because of political instability and the possibility of unauthorized launch.

Yet, the president continues to ignore these realities, a fact underscored by his 1999 budget, which proposes $20 million less than was allocated in 1998 for development of a national missile defense. His arguments against an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system are based on hopes rather than hard facts. We need to look only as far as today’s headlines to recognize that the Commission’s findings are closer to reality than the president’s hopes.

Iran is acquiring an increasingly lethal and far-reaching stockpile of weaponry from Russia, China, and North Korea. Iraq continues to be one or two steps ahead of U.N. weapons inspectors. Libya has completed the largest chemical weapons production facility in the world.

North Korea has tested intermediate-range missiles, with a striking distance of 3,000 miles—missiles that security analysts once thought would never fall into its hands. Long-range missiles cannot be far off for Pyongyang. Indeed, what prevents China, the world’s least discriminating arms dealer, from selling intercontinental missiles to North Korea? China itself made a veiled threat that it would bomb California in the event of U.S. intervention in Taiwan.

The oceans can no longer protect us from these threats. A day is approaching when one of these countries will attempt to mete out revenge on America’s homeland, and a chemical- or nuclear-tipped missile will be the weapon of choice. That day is closer than President Clinton is willing to admit.

Then there is the case of Russia, with its unpaid military and shattered economy. Rather than pointing to Russia’s unstable arsenal as an example of the risks of the post-Cold War world, the president uses Moscow as cover for his complacency on the ABM issue. The administration argues that an anti-missile system violates the 1972 ABM Treaty--an irrational agreement between Washington and Moscow that blocked the development of a national shield against missile attack.

But the president’s view is out of step with the realities of today. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Hence, there is a legitimate reason to re-negotiate or even abrogate the ABM Treaty. The United States and the Soviet successor states have discarded or reviewed other treaties for this very reason. With the shackles of Brezhnev and Nixon’s treaty removed, perhaps Washington and Moscow can work together on extending the missile shield across the Atlantic and into Europe.

But at its core, the president’s resistance to an ABM program is grounded in politics. He seems to fear how the electorate—and history—will treat a president that invests tens of billions of dollars in a program that would yield no immediate benefits. But history itself tells us that the people will follow when the president leads, even when the road is costly.

FDR had to convince an isolationist America of the necessity of aiding Great Britain prior to America’s entry into World War II. At Roosevelt’s urging, America shrugged off the false sense of security cultivated by the oceans, and the "the great arsenal of democracy" was created.

By the end of the war, public sentiment favored a quick exit from Europe. But soon after the war’s final act, Harry Truman initiated a $400 million effort to assist Greece and Turkey in their struggles against communism. Less than a year later, he authorized the costly Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe, forged NATO, and steered America into an era of unprecedented overseas engagement and defense spending. (Between 1950 and 1989, Americans poured a staggering $5.5 trillion into national defense.)

After three years in office, Dwight Eisenhower had more than doubled the defense budget. By the end of his presidency, the number of American nuclear weapons had increased eighteen-fold, fueling a costly and brutal arms race with Moscow. Eisenhower had to enunciate his rationale for the increased spending; like FDR and Truman before him, he had to explain how the challenges of the moment could affect and one day threaten the American people. They agreed.

More recently, Ronald Reagan’s decision to deploy missiles in Western Europe was heavily criticized at home and abroad. His vision of a space-based anti-missile system to protect America’s cities, neighborhoods and farms was derided by critics in the media and Congress.

The Soviet leadership, however, knew that such a system was feasible and realized that only the American economy could bear its enormous costs. Reagan never backed down from the Soviets or his detractors at home. The fruits of his resolve are visible from Central Europe to Central America.

Political volition seldom presents itself; it must often be elicited. The essence of leadership is to pursue the goal in spite of the possible consequences—even when support is low or untested. Bill Clinton still fails to grasp this fact.

Americans will pay the $40 billion needed to build a shield against an accidental or terrorist missile attack. They have seen missiles rain down on Israel and Saudi Arabia; they have experienced the brutality of terrorism; they have paid in blood and treasure for their freedom and security. They are wiser and more willing to sacrifice than President Clinton could ever understand.