Missiles and politics

Published : Jul 22, 2000 00:00 IST


DOMESTIC politics in the United States is certain to play a role in President Bill Clinton's eventual decision on the deployment of the National Missile Defence (NMD) system. Vice-President and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore is at the moment tr ailing the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, in opinion polls. Clinton has repeatedly said that he would do his best to see that Gore emerged triumphant in the presidential sweepstakes.

Not that the American public is overly exercised about the NMD issue. But, with the election campaign in full swing, national security issues have come to occupy centre stage. On the campaign trail, George Bush has often stated that "the rebuilding of th e U.S. military" will be among the most important tasks if he is elected to the presidency. The Republicans have criticised the Clinton administration's management of the anti-ballistic missile programme, saying that it has not given missile defence enou gh importance. The failure of the recent NMD tests has put more pressure on Clinton. The mainstream American media are of the opinion that in order to advance the political interests of Gore and protect him against charges that the Democrats are soft on matters relating to defence and security, Clinton may opt for the initial deployment of the missile shield.

When Clinton took office, the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), or Star Wars, programme was virtually dead, but the Republican-dominated Congress was still nostalgic about it and made the issue of missile defence an important political issue. In 1995, Congress passed legislation mandating the deployment of a national missile defence system by 2003. Clinton promptly vetoed the resolution, arguing sensibly that there was no immediate threat to justify such a move. But the Republicans continued to press ure the White House. Clinton made a compromise in 1996 and announced the "3+3" programme, which would first develop and possibly deploy an NMD system in two phases of three years each. The programme took into consideration the argument that there would b e at least a three-year warning period before an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is deployed by an emerging missile state.

But in mid-1998, a bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States under the chairmanship of former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield released a report which came to the conclusion that North Korea and Iran could develo p ICBMs in five years. The launching of the three-stage Taepo-Dong 1 rocket by North Korea in August that year to launch a satellite gave the hawks in the U.S. defence establishment another argument to bolster their case. They argued that there was an ur gent need to deploy the NMD to defend the U.S. as, in their opinion, the deployment of the North Korean missile would come without any warning. In January 1999, the Clinton administration announced that it would take a decision on the deployment of the N MD system in the summer of 2000. The decision, it said, would depend on the costs involved, the implications for the strategic and arms control agreements, and the readiness of technology.

Throughout the two terms of the Clinton presidency, work on the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) programme has been going on at a high level. The U.S. Army has been focussing on the land based theatre high-altitude area defence (THAAD) system. The U.S. is a lso working with Israel on the "Arrow" system, while enhancing the capabilities of the "Patriot" system. The Patriot system was developed for air defence and put into use during the Gulf war. In July last year, Clinton signed the NMD Act of 1999, which s tates that it is U.S. policy to deploy a limited NMD system as soon as "technologically possible".

The Republicans would prefer Clinton to delay the decision on the NMD until after the presidential election and thus stop the Democrats from taking credit for launching Star Wars-II, as the NMD is described in the American media. In December last, Bush s aid that he would even hail Clinton if he delayed the decision on the deployment of the defence system. His response came after an independent team of missile defence experts, headed by former Air Force chief Gen. Larry Welch, issued a report in November 1999, recommending that a deployment decision in 2000 may be premature.

The Republicans want an administration headed by Bush to take the decision on the NMD deployment as they feel that Clinton may give several concessions to Moscow while negotiating amendments to the ABM Treaty that prevents the U.S. from building an ambit ious anti-missile shield. Congressman Curt Weldon was quoted as saying: "They (administration officials) have no credibility with the Russians and no credibility with Congress on the issue."

The Democrats have been comparatively quiet on the issue. Only a few of their top-ranking leaders have spoken out against the NMD. Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in December 1999 that "it is fol ly to base our strategic posture on the idea that we can develop effective defences against all the diverse threats we face today." He has urged the Clinton administration to delay a decision until the next administration takes over in January next year.

Anyway, the Republicans are in no mood to give Clinton any political leeway on the issue. If Clinton is moving ahead with the NMD, they want a full-scale, three-phase NMD system to be sanctioned. According to indications, Clinton on the other hand, may s eek congressional for approval only for the first phase. But Congress is expected to reject any such request. Republican hawks led by Senator Jesse Helms have already warned that any deal with Russia on the ABM Treaty will be shot down by Congress. The m ilitary-industrial complex also has a vested interest in a full-scale NMD programme. The NMD could be a lavish funding source for the U.S. aerospace industry.

THE Clinton administration is sharply divided over the "threat perception" issue. State Department officials, for instance, disagreed with the assessment of the intelligence community that North Korea could soon develop a ballistic missile that could thr eaten the U.S.

In September 1999, the National Intelligence Council predicted that "during the next 15 years the United States will most likely face ICBM threats from Russia, China and North Korea, probably from Iran and possibly from Iraq." They also disagree with Def ence Secretary William Cohen's assessment that by 2005 "a threat will be present that could threaten the security of the US." Senior U.S. officials point out that North Korea has suspended its missile tests and a political rapprochement has taken place b etween North Korea and South Korea after the leaders of the two countries met in June.

A group of 50 Nobel laureates, all Americans, have signed an open letter addressed to President Clinton urging him to reject the anti-missile deployment, arguing that the proposed system offers "little protection and would do grave harm to the nation's c ore security interests". The letter says that scientists independent of the Pentagon had long argued that enemies could outwit or overwhelm any such attempt at defence. The letter also underlined the fact that North Korea, whose missile programme is the major argument offered for pursuing the proposed NMD, has taken steps towards reconciliation with South Korea.

"Other dangerous states will arise but what would such a state gain by attacking the United States except its own destruction," the letter said. The Nobel laureates said that the NMD system could prove to be dangerous. Russia and China could respond by building more nuclear weapons and readying missiles "for launch on warning", which could further raise the risk of an accidental nuclear war.

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