In Defense of Missile Defense

U.S. plans to move forward with ballistic missile defense have taken a curious turn.

The Russians proposed this past week a joint-European defense system. Not for the first time, of course. President Putin was already pitching a version of the idea last summer. It's also true that when the Russians are not proposing to work together on missile defense, Moscow is spending inordinate amounts of time ridiculing the rationale for such a system.

Defense ministry spokesmen in Moscow have said that the "true missile threat" is actually "nil," that U.S. threat scenarios represent a "fantasy" of U.S. defense planners. According to President Putin not so long ago, the missile threat, "which Americans mention . . . does not exist today and will not (exist) in the foreseeable future." And from this the Russians conclude, apparently, that it's time to move forward with, well--missile defense.

Similarly, our European allies have been decidedly ambivalent. When the British Prime Minister arrived in Washington last week, Tony Blair was doing what he does best--sitting on the fence. The French, of course, had already confirmed their opposition to American missile defense plans. While the Schroeder-Fischer government was waffling, two former German foreign ministers stepped up the call for Berlin to stand up to the Americans.

Like the Russians, the Europeans know by now missile defense is coming. They see it like a visit to the dentist, as Henry Kissinger puts it. But the game has become just how to posture--and minimize what Europeans see as the unpleasant side effects.

Of course, there are serious souls, who have doubts about the cost-benefit calculus in deploying missile defense. It's fair to ask about the implication for various non-proliferation efforts. No less than Donald Rumsfeld, now the new U.S. defense secretary, told me last spring that he himself still had questions about a number of "cost and technology issues." All fair enough. But none of this should obscure the fact the there is a more serious problem at hand. European attitudes toward missile defense are a symptom.

European opponents of missile defense insist that an attack by a rogue state on an American city is highly improbable. Perhaps. But these weapons have political value, too. The mere possession of a ballistic missile in the wrong hands can be used as an instrument of blackmail and coercion. How would the alliance have reacted, for example, had NATO believed during the Kosovo war that Slobodan Milosevic possessed a missile capable of striking Athens or Rome? It's hard to imagine that the fragile Western coalition would have held.

Ah, but what about that biological agent, ask the European skeptics, smuggled into Manhattan in a suitcase? Javier Solana, the E.U.'s foreign policy spokesman, tries it. Former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher uses it (What about the "atomic car bomb"? he asks). It helps explain why, says Karl Lamers, foreign policy spokesman of the German Christian Democratic Union, Washington's missile defense argument is "not serious." Are the Europeans kidding?

Of course, missile defense is not intended to deal with the full spectrum of threats that are growing today. But who among our European allies is ready to deal seriously with the suitcase scenario? A Scottish court in the Netherlands finds a Libyan intelligence agent guilty of planting the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, killing 270 people in 1988. Is there any doubt where the orders for the attack came from? Still, the president of the European Commission, Romana Prodi, thinks it's time for rapprochement and dialogue with Moammar Gadhafi.

For years, the Syrians have provided terrorists a base from which to train and operate (the defense in the Lockerbie case event went to great lengths to sow doubt by blaming a Syrian-based terrorist group--the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--for the Pan Am attack). In reply, the Europeans argue in favor of negotiations with Damascus and Palestinian terrorists alike.

It is always easier to concentrate on apprehending the individual terrorist, observed Nobel Prize winner David Trimble of Northern Ireland at a recent roundtable of the New Atlantic Initiative in Washington. But what about the state that makes the terror possible? It may be difficult to find Osma bin Laden in Afghanistan, but we know the authorities who give him refuge. Richard Perle, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, calls for finally "clobbering the territory from which (terrorists) operate." It would take us to the root of the problem.

First, missile defense. Then, if the allies are genuinely concerned about countering the "suitcase" threat, there's another conversation the Bush administration ought to be ready to pursue.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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