Bush bombshell

Print edition : May 12, 2001

President Bush comes up with a new strategic package that in the final analysis may be no less dangerous for the world at large than earlier plans designed to suit U.S. interests.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush's speech on May 1 at the National Defence University in Washington had no element of surprise. Perhaps the only suspense was over whether Bush would use the occasion to announce that the United States was formally withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. As it turned out, in the speech President Bush went ahead and sought to change the rules of the nuclear game by announcing deep cuts in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal but insisting on building space-based weapons as part of the missile defence system.

President George W. Bush speaking at the National Defence University in Washington on May 1.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

For Bush, talking of either coming to grips with the post-Cold War era or of going ahead with the National Missile Defence (NMD) system did not involve anything more than trying to humour a constituency that believes that U.S. strategic interests had been overlooked in the eight years of the Clinton administration.

The fact that Bush formally and completely adopted the foreign policy formula pushed by leading conservatives such as Jesse Helms, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others should come as no surprise either. For instance, Senator Helms was saying for quite some time that the U.S. was not legally bound by the ABM Treaty because, among other things, the Soviet Union was no longer around. Apart from that, conservatives like Helms have been pushing for a missile defence system, although the considered opinion is that it could be yet another pipedream, one similar to the Strategic Defence Initiative of the Ronald Reagan era. Moreover, it does not even matter to Bush that the completion of the first phase of the NMD is likely only around 2004, towards the end of his present term.

Bush's so-called reaching out to Russia and the talk of cutting down arsenals also appeals to the conservative mainstream. For a long time the right wing has been saying that the U.S. must not be tied down by anything formal, such as a treaty or numbers, in order to retain the element of flexibility. Without getting into the numbers he had in mind, Bush said: "Nuclear weapons will still have a vital role to play in our security and that of our allies. We can and will change the size, composition, the character of our nuclear forces in a way that reflects the reality that the Cold War is over." From some 7,000 strategic weapons in the arsenal, which number is supposed to come down to between 3,000 and 3,500, it is said that the President's top aides are talking about having some 2,000 nuclear weapons.

Ever since the Bush administration assumed office in January, senior officials have been saying that they were willing to talk to Moscow in order to persuade it to accept the NMD. Although Moscow was not pleased with Bush's speech at the National Defence University, it had not rejected all the overtures. "We are not and must not be strategic adversaries," Bush said in his speech, referring to Russia. He added that both Moscow and Washington should come to terms on a new framework which marked a clear and clean break with the past.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.-LEE JAE-WON/REUTERS

The Bush administration will be sending a separate mission to Moscow to discuss the NMD, the future of the ABM Treaty and the cuts in the nuclear arsenal. Senior officials in Washington were saying that the President was not averse to a discussion with Moscow on any or all aspects of the future programme. "The President of the United States has already said that we will take into account Russia's concerns about how our defence system would affect its deterrence potential," said Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell. Washington is quite aware of the fact that Russia has only "cautiously" welcomed Bush's statements. Moreover, Moscow has been saying that any side-stepping of the ABM Treaty would only lead to a new arms race, threatening national security.

DOMESTICALLY and internationally there is scepticism, if not downright opposition, to the NMD. In fact, if first reactions are anything to go by, hardly any country has come out with an endorsement of the U.S. President's "new" post-Cold War strategic framework. Just why New Delhi should rush to endorse the Bush doctrine is a question best left to politicians and the cheerleaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to answer.

Even key allies of the U.S. in Europe, such as Britain and Canada, want to know what the NMD is all about. Canada, especially, wants to know more about a system in which it will be a major participant, directly and indirectly. The same is the case with several countries in Europe which will be direct participants in the U.S. anti-missile shield plan.

In the Asia-Pacific region also there was disdain over the manner in which the Bush administration has handled the NMD issue. Although Washington said that senior officials were to tour Asia and Europe in order to hold "consultations", not many countries had any such illusions. With the administration determined to go ahead with the project, the question is if after "consultations" allies and friends told the Bush administration to give up on the idea, would the White House oblige? It is not likely.

Leaving aside objections from Europe, which will have to bear some of the brunt in stationing the structures of the NMD, Japan is neither impressed with the idea nor is it in any mood to add to its existing problems in the Asia-Pacific. Although Japan was disappointed at losing its "linchpin" status attention during the Clinton era when the U.S. was pursuing a strategic engagement with China, it is not happy with the latest developments. In fact, in the last several weeks Tokyo has seen signs of what may be in store for the future - the incident off the coast of China involving a U.S. surveillance plane, Washington's offer of an arms package to Taiwan, and now the NMD.

A demonstration in Seoul against U.S. plans for space weapons.-ALEXANDER ZEMILIANICHENKO/REUTERS

Although the Japanese are part of a study on Theatre Missile Defence, they have made it clear that they intend asking some pointed questions when Richard Armitage, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who will be the main pointman in the Bush administration's new "framework" thinking, lands in Japan for "consultations".

Meanwhile in the U.S., the Democrats are up in arms against a project that no one even knows is feasible or not. Moreover, given the manner in which it is being described and talked about - as a comprehensive system encompassing land-, sea- and space-based weapons - detractors of the President say that the whole project could cost around $1 trillion. The Bush White House has not said from where the money will come from, even if anyone knows exactly how much the system will cost.

Democrats and critics of the Republican administration sense a readiness on the part of the conservative establishment to withdraw from treaties; the Bush administration has already taken a lot of flak by announcing its intention not to subscribe to the Kyoto Protocol dealing with the emission of greenhouse gases. In the realm of nuclear arms control and the National Missile Defence system, what riles the Opposition is that the new administration does not even know if the system is feasible and would work.

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