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Tensions Heighten As Bush Declares ABM Treaty Obsolete

by Jim Lobe

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(IPS) WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush's May 1 announcement of plans to build a multi-dimensional national missile defense (NMD) system will heighten global tensions and set back international arms control efforts, critics say.

His remarks, in a major policy address, marked the formal opening of what is certain to be an intense campaign to persuade both Congress and friendly and even not-so-friendly states abroad that such a system is both technologically feasible and aimed only against so-called "rogue states" determined to obtain weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them.

Speaking at the National Defense University here, Bush called for the replacement of the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which is widely seen as a cornerstone of international arms control efforts.

Appealing directly to Russia, the Soviet Union's successor state, he said, "we should work together to replace this treaty with a new framework that reflects a clear and clean break from the past, and especially from the adversarial legacy of the Cold War."

He also announced the dispatch next week of a high-level delegation -- consisting of the deputy secretaries of state and defense, as well as Bush's deputy national security adviser, to meet with U.S. allies in NATO, Asia, and the South Pacific about the plan.

"These will be real consultations," Bush pledged. "We are not presenting our friends and allies with unilateral decisions already made. We'll also need to reach out to other interested states, including China and Russia," he added.

For reasons similar to those of NMD critics here, many U.S. allies believe NMD is a bad idea. Russia strongly opposes it, and China, whose ties with Washington have become increasingly tense since Bush became president in January, has warned that deploying such a system will lead to "disastrous consequences."

Most analysts here believe Beijing, even more than Moscow, will actively pursue counter-measures, including a rapid build-up of its currently tiny intercontinental ballistic missile force, as well as the development of technologies, such as hundreds or even thousands of decoy or dummy missiles, designed to overwhelm NMD if it is ever deployed.

Chinese officials have expressed skepticism over Bush's insistence that NMD is directed only against "rogue" states like North Korea or Iraq, and not against Beijing which is described by the administration as a "strategic rival" or "competitor."

Bush, whose remarks yesterday echoed what he said during his presidential campaign, coupled his announcement with a pledge to "quickly" and unilaterally reduce Washington's own nuclear arsenal of some 7,000 warheads "to the lowest possible number consistent with our national security needs, including our obligations to our allies."

He also suggested that Washington would be prepared to work with Russia on improving their early-warning capabilities and eventually to "even cooperate in a joint defense."

But critics said that such measures were designed to "sugarcoat" what really marks the abandonment by the world's only military superpower of key elements of the international arms-control regime built up during the Cold War, including the ABM Treaty and efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of space.

"The administration apparently hopes that wrapping the 'sweet' of nuclear weapons cuts around the 'poison pill' of Star Wars will make the resulting package easier to swallow," according to John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World here.

Deploying NMD, he warned, is likely to have the perverse effect of spurring Russia and China, in particular, to retain or even build up their own nuclear arsenals, even if Washington cuts the number of its warheads by as much as two-thirds.

"The benefits of reducing nuclear weapons will be lost if missile defense deployment sparks a new arms race," noted James Walsh, an arms specialist at Harvard University.

Other critics, as well as Washington's own intelligence community, have warned that NMD deployment is likely to set off a new arms race that could ripple across the Eurasian continent, provoking first China, then India, and then Pakistan to either build up their own missile forces or trying to deploy anti-missile defenses of their own.

"It will be a huge windfall for the Big Four missile defense contractors"
Abandoning the ABM Treaty means leaving behind the key element -- mutual deterrence -- that helped restrain the superpower arms race and maintain peace between the two sides during the Cold War.

As Bush himself put it last week, "Security of both the United States and the Soviet Union was based on a grim premise: that neither side would fire nuclear weapons at each other, because doing so would mean the end of both nations." That relationship was codified in the ABM Treaty which left both sides "open and vulnerable to nuclear attack."

While that principle worked during the Cold War when there were only two superpowers and only half a dozen nuclear powers, "today the sun comes up on a vastly different world" in which "more nations have nuclear weapons and still more have nuclear aspirations," Bush said.

Many countries have acquired chemical and biological weapons as well as ballistic missile technology, which has proliferated rapidly.

"Unlike the Cold War, today's most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life," according to Bush. "Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation."

Bush's initiative marks the latest incarnation of President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program, a fruitless $120 billion experiment to develop a space-based system that could destroy missiles in mid-flight.

Under Republican pressure, the Clinton administration tried to design a far more limited, land-based system at a cost of another $60 billion but suspended work on it late last year after several initial tests failed to hit their targets.

"Missile defense requires technologies that we don't know yet how to build," said Ted Postel, a missile scientist at t MIT who has worked in the past for the Pentagon.

Bush himself was deliberately vague about the design and scope of the NMD he hopes to build, except to cite possibilities for intercepting missiles in their take-off, or boost, phase either through sea or air. "We have more work to do to determine the final form the defenses might take; we will explore all these options further."

He did not explicitly mention the possibility of a space-based system which is known to be strongly favored by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, the administration's strongest NMD champion.

"He may not have wanted to add too much more scary rhetoric about space to what is already scaring our allies overseas," noted Gordon Clark, coordinator of Greenpeace's disarmament campaign here.

Bush was also silent about possible costs, although the kind of multi-layered system favored by Rumsfeld will dwarf the cost of Clinton's program, according to William Hartung, an arms analyst at the World Policy Institute in New York. "It will be a huge windfall for the Big Four missile defense contractors," he said.

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Albion Monitor May 7, 2001 (

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