Months before even getting the GOP nomination, Gov. Bush

made this
pledge:

America must build effective missile defenses, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date. Our missile defense must be designed to protect all 50 states — and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas — from missile attacks by rogue nations or accidental launches.

After he got the nomination, he re-iterated that pledge and went on to say in a

White Paper
addressed to the National Guard Association:

For most of our history, America felt safe behind two great oceans. But with the spread of technology, distance no longer means security. North Korea is proving that even a poor and backward country, in the hands of a tyrant, can reach across oceans to threaten us. It has developed missiles capable of hitting Hawaii and Alaska. Iran has made rapid strides in its missile program, and

Iraq persists in a race to
do the same.
Add to this the threat of biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism — barbarism emboldened by technology. These weapons can be delivered, not just by ballistic missiles, but by everything from airplanes to cruise missiles, from shipping containers to suitcases.

Quite a few people took that to be a Bush pledge to deploy by next Tuesday a ballistic missile defense system (ABM) for all 50 states — the kind of system we promised the Soviet Union under the ABM Treaty that we would never build. The kind of system that can deter — if not defeat — an all-out sophisticated multi-hundred missile, multi-thousand warhead attack. But Gen. Colin Powell, the president-elect’s nominee for Secretary of State, has warned that the “earliest possible date” for deploying even a limited system designed to “protect all 50 states from missile attacks by rogue nations — or accidental launches” — may not be any time soon.

Why?

According to Powell, “We have to spend time discussing it with our allies, discussing it with other nations in the world that possess strategic offensive weapons and do not yet understand our thinking in respect to national missile defense.”

Why do they not yet understand our thinking? Well, you have to admit that from the viewpoint of the Brits, the French, the Russians and perhaps the Chinese, our thinking does seem a bit odd. You see, none of us have any need to defend ourselves against ballistic missiles, themselves. Ballistic missiles are not a threat. Ballistic missiles only become a threat to us when those missiles are delivering nukes. Furthermore, the only nuke-tipped ballistic missiles Americans need worry about are those with intercontinental range or “ICBMs.” The only countries, besides the U.S., that have both ICBMs and nukes are the Brits, the French, the Russians and perhaps the Chinese. Now, all those countries are oceans away from the United States. It logically follows — at least to the Russians — that we are hell-bent on deploying an ABM defense system that could only be effective against their nuke-tipped ICBMs. Conversely, were they to develop and deploy identical ABM systems in Russia, those systems would only be effective against U.S. nuke-tipped ICBMs. In other words, they see us wanting to build exactly the kind of systems we promised under the ABM Treaty not to build.

Of course, that’s not the kind of system Bush-Cheney intend to build at all. The Bush-Cheney ABM policy is driven by our experiences with Iraqi ballistic missiles in the Gulf War. The initial ABM system fielded by Bush-Cheney is therefore likely to be the one we wished we had had at the time of the Gulf War, to protect our fleet, our troops, and Israeli and Saudi civilians. It is likely to be an upgrade of our existing Aegis Fleet Air Defense system or the Army’s Theatre High Altitude Air Defense system. It’s to be a defense against one-sies and two-sies, not thousands and thousands of nukes.

What President-elect Bush has said, and Colin Powell has reiterated, is that the first thing the Bush-Cheney administration will do is to assess the terrorist and rogue state threat. If, after making that assessment, it seems clear that the nuke-tipped ICBM threat needs to be addressed, then:

At the earliest possible date, my administration will deploy anti-ballistic missile systems, both theater and national, to guard against attack and blackmail. To make this possible, we will offer Russia the necessary amendments to the anti-ballistic missile treaty — an artifact of Cold War confrontation. If Russia refuses the changes we propose, we will give prompt notice, under the provisions of the treaty, that we can no longer be a party to it. I will have a solemn obligation to protect the American people and our allies — not to protect arms control agreements signed almost 30 years ago.

But, what if that assessment does not support a deployment of a 50-state ABM system by Tuesday of next week? What if the threat assessment concludes that the greatest threat to Americans at home is terrorism by high-explosives, chem-bio or nukes delivered by rent-a-truck?

(Note that none of the terrorist attacks on Americans during the Clinton-Gore years involved ballistic missiles and only a few attacks were made here in the 50 states. Nearly all recent terrorist attacks were against Americans in service abroad, at U.S. embassies, on U.S. ships, or in U.S. military installations. Other attacks may have been made against American airliners in international flight. All of these overseas attacks were, in effect, acts of war, not terrorism. Also note that no attacks — by whatever delivery system — have yet involved chemical or biological agents or loose nukes. Even the Iraqi ballistic missiles launched during the Gulf War contained only high explosives.)

Well, in that case, Bush went on to say,

We will defend the American homeland by strengthening our intelligence community — focusing on human intelligence and the early detection of terrorist operations both here and abroad. And when direct threats to America are discovered, I know that the best defense can be a strong and swift offense — including the use of Special Operations Forces and long-range strike capabilities. I will put a high priority on detecting and responding to terrorism on our soil. The federal government must take this threat seriously.

Readers of these columns will know that it is practically impossible to prevent terrorists or rogue states from acquiring or making high explosives or chem-bio weapons. The terrorists don’t even have to bring the chem-bio “weapon” into the country — they can buy the “makings” almost anywhere and whip-up their weapon in their kitchen or garage. Our only hope is in preventing their use once acquired. So President-elect Bush is correct to place a high priority on early discovery and response to that kind of terrorism.

But we can prevent terrorists or rogue states from acquiring or making nukes. Making the requisite “fissile material” — either U235 or Pu239 — from scratch is incredibly difficult and expensive. It would be much simpler for a terrorist or rogue state to beg, borrow or steal it. (Both the North Koreans and Iraqis were essentially “borrowing” fissile materials that had been supplied to them for peaceful uses, as fuel for research reactors.) That is why the Bush-Cheney administration must place a very high priority on

“Managing the Global Nuclear Materials Threat.”
One of the biggest failures of the Clinton-Gore administration was to focus on getting rid of nukes, rather than accepting the inevitability of decade after decade of safeguarding and physically protecting nuke materials and nuke technologies.

And when assessing the threat, it is important to keep separate threats, separate. You can’t lump — as the Clinton-Gore administration tended to do — such disparate threats as nukes, nerve gas, anthrax spores, fertilizer, cleaning fluid, ballistic missiles and hacker-software all together, call them “weapons of mass destruction” and then develop a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the WMD threat. In the immortal words of that 20th century philosopher, John Madden, “One size don’t fit all.”

It will probably turn out from the Bush-Cheney assessment that we don’t need a 50-state ABM system by next Tuesday to protect us from the nukes of terrorists or rogue states. It might turn out that we could better spend all that time and money huddled with the Russians, Brits and French — figuring out what we’re going to do if the Indians and Pakistanis, both now possessing ballistic missiles and nukes, accidentally or deliberately launch them at each other some fine day. If Clinton-Gore had spent more time worrying about Indian and Pakistani nukes — and less time trying to get them to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — the rest of us would have a lot less to worry about now.

Well, it’s been almost a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe we’ve overestimated the loose-nuke threat — or maybe we have just been lucky. Maybe, as early as next year, some terrorist group will flood the National Capital Area subway system with chemical or biological agents, or perhaps agents of a rogue state will even detonate a nuke on the Capitol steps. But there is one thing you can be fairly certain of: If a fairy godmother magically waved her wand and, presto-chango, the United States instantly had a leak-proof, 50-state antiballistic missile system, it would be of absolutely no use in preventing that rogue-state nuke from being detonated on the Capitol steps or those metro riders from being gassed by terrorists.

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