TOPICS > Nation

Missile Defense

February 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GEORGE W. BUSH: (August 3, 2000) At the earliest possible date, my administration will deploy missile defenses to guard against attack and blackmail.

MARGARET WARNER: It was one of candidate George W. Bush’s core campaign promises, to build a high-tech defense shield to protect Americans from missile attacks. He reaffirmed that commitment today at a military command center in Virginia, and said he wanted to include America’s allies in his plans.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We will consult early and candidly with our NATO allies, and we will expect them to return the same. In diplomacy and technology and missile defense, in fighting wars, and above all, in preventing wars, we must work as one.

MARGARET WARNER: But the European allies are skeptical. In January, French President Jacques Chirac said a U.S. missile shield will relaunch the arms race in the world. And last week, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cautioned the U.S. against overly hasty and early determinations to move ahead with the project. Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to calm those fears last week when he spoke at a conference in Munich, Germany.

DONALD RUMSFELD: These systems will be a threat to no one. That is a fact. They should be of concern to no one save those who would threaten others.

MARGARET WARNER: Russia and China are even more hostile to the idea. They warn that a U.S. defense shield will prompt other nations to deploy new weapons and technologies to try to overcome& -pit. Russia also says such a shield is prohibited by the 1972 U.S.- Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Debates over missile defense date from the Reagan era. Ronald Reagan envisioned a system of space-based lasers to shoot down incoming missiles.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (March 1983) What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil, or that of our allies?

MARGARET WARNER: Reagan won some funding, and for 15 years, the project was pursued, but at ever-more- scaled-back levels of research. In 1998, the idea was given new life. A bipartisan commission chaired by then-private citizen Donald Rumsfeld warned that the U.S. faced near-term missile threats from new quarters, from such states as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. The report spurred the Clinton administration to draw up plans for a $60 billion ground-based system that would protect only the United States and comply with the ABM treaty. But two out of three tests failed, and last fall, the Clinton administration decided not to begin building the system. Candidate Bush called Clinton’s ground-based system too limited. But President Bush has given few details about what exactly he has in mind.

MARGARET WARNER: To debate the merits of the administration’s missile defense plans, we turn to Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Richard Perle, former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, and a defense adviser to the Bush campaign. Welcome, gentlemen. Richard Perle, is the administration right to make this such a high priority? Why does the U.S. need this now?

RICHARD PERLE: First of all, it was an important part of the President’s campaign. He didn’t make any promises, but the ones he did make he means top keep. And I think that’s the way it ought to be. If we don’t get started it’s going to take some time, no matter when we get going. The program that the outgoing administration had been looking at is worse than inadequate. It would have been foolish to build it. So we have to start over again in a sense building on technology that’s been developed, but we have to start somewhere and the sooner the better.

MARGARET WARNER: But what is the threat? Why is it necessary at all?

RICHARD PERLE: Well, we know that there are a number of countries attempting to acquire ballistic missiles. Some of them already have weapons of mass destruction in the form of chemical and biological agents and are working on nuclear agents. And they could break through in this area at any moment. We simply don’t know when. If we assume that the only way they can acquire a missile is through their own independent efforts, it could be a few years. But if it comes through trade, if it comes through a transfer of technology, it could happen very suddenly.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see the threat? Is this the way to meet it?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, first of all I don’t know nor do I think Mr. Perle knows exactly what the President is going to propose. We agree on one thing: The last system shouldn’t have been built. It didn’t do the job. And I think it would…it was unnecessary for the proposed… for the alleged threat. One of the things I think this relates to is priorities. I think Richard is correct that, you know, there could be a breakout in terms of the purchase of this technology, the purchase of a weapon, the purchase of a missile.

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me for interrupting. Are you both talking about countries like North Korea, like Iran, like Iraq?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, I am but I’m not sure what the President is talking about. I’m not being facetious. The President says several things. He says we have to worry about rogue nations. He says we have to worry about an accidental launch — which means from China or from Russia or anywhere else. The technology, the capacity, the capability of those systems to deal with each of those are very, very different. One is much broader than the other. And I think we have to look at what are the priorities. I’m for the continuation of expending billions of dollars on research and seeing what is the best proposal because I can envision a circumstance where offense and defensive capability combined would enhance our security. But it seems to me that we should be focusing more on, for example, the recommendations of Senator Baker and others saying that the greatest imminent threat we have is the destabilization of nuclear weapons and Russian scientists for sale. They say it’s going to cost $30 billion to deal with that problem. So a lot of this has to do with priorities. I’m holding my powder dry until I see what the President proposes. I can see a circumstance where we could negotiate a circumstance where we had a continuation of deterrence, fewer strategic weapons, and a defensive capability. But one thing we agree on, we shouldn’t be pouring cement in Alaska right now.

MARGARET WARNER: What should this… How big an area, whom should this system protect?

RICHARD PERLE: Well, it should, of course, protect the United States but I believe it should also protect our friends and allies, some of whom are potentially more vulnerable and exposed than we are. It’s very important to remember one thing. We have no defense today against ballistic missiles, none whatsoever, not even against a single missile. A single accidentally launched missile, a single missile that Saddam Hussein might acquire would put him in the position of being able to inflict untold damage on the United States. Now if we want to discourage Saddam Hussein from acquiring that missile and that warhead in the first place, we should raise the barrier. We should create a circumstance in which a single missile isn’t going to do him any good because we’ll intercept it or, two or five or ten or fifty. So a limited defense, not a huge ambitious project, one that we can afford, is the best way to halt the proliferation of these weapons by discouraging people from believing that they can intimidate the United States.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Theoretically correct as long as if end product is that we don’t have this the Russians stop dismantling their MRV weapons….

MARGARET WARNER: The multiple warhead weapons.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Their multiple warhead weapons — and have China go from 18 to 600 ICBM’s. It is possible to do that. The greatest threat that we have is a dirty bomb being put in the bottom of a tramp steamer coming up the middle of… Look, we smuggle tons of cocaine into this country we can’t stop. It wouldn’t be hard to do the other. And we’re not spending… They aren’t mutually exclusive. We should do both but we’re spending precious little of our money and our effort to deal with that problem relative… And that is scaled as a much higher threat… Than an ICBM’s striking us with a return address on it.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree that’s a higher threat? The President said today in fact that the other threat comes in on a steamer trunk or a suitcase.

RICHARD PERLE: I think we have to be concerned with both. With respect to the clandestine infiltration of the weapon, about the only thing you can do is improve your intelligence collection because if we know about it, we can stop it. If we don’t know about it we probably can’t.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the other point Senator Biden just raised, which is the possible reaction of Russia and China? How do you think they’re likely to react? Could it ultimately be more destabilizing?

RICHARD PERLE: I don’t think so. What I want to say to Senator Biden is that the Cold War is truly over. There’s no reason why the Russians need to regard a modest American defense against the likes of Saddam Hussein as a threat to Russia. Russia is no longer an enemy of the United States. And because it’s no longer an enemy, the kinds of calculations we made during the Cold War where we looked very carefully to make sure that offense and defense were balanced, calculations that were really enshrined in the ABM Treaty of 1972 — those are really no longer relevant either for us or for them. As long as we continue to talk about Russian responses in Cold War terms unwittingly, we’re really perpetuating the psychology of the Cold War.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: I really don’t disagree with the basic premise but I suspect that Secretary Perle would agree that there’s a very different calculus for the Chinese with 18 ICBM’s now.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because this system….

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Let me put it this way. The Chinese already believe we can do about anything we want to do. And so for us to sit and say, by the way, this system that can intercept 2, 5, 7, 12, 15 missiles from North Korea in the future, Iran or Iraq, they’re going to sit there and say, it seems to me, any rational planner, well, wait a minute, I’m not so sure about us. And so, again, this is all possible, but I hope there is no… There’s almost a religious mantra that goes on not with Secretary Perle but in my outfit, the United States Senate. And that is, anything you can do now to kill dead and forever and put a wooden stake through the heart of the ABM Treaty you should do it. There’s others on the other side who say at all costs maintain the ABM Treaty. This is something that could, should and must be pursued, negotiated and discussed with our allies as well as our… not our enemies but our potential adversaries. I don’t know why we can’t do it all.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think the administration should deal with Russia’s concerns and with the ABM Treaty? Because I mean they haven’t bought the argument you made… the Clinton administration made the same argument to them last year and they didn’t buy it, that this wasn’t aimed at them.

RICHARD PERLE: What the Clinton administration was doing was basically living within the terms of the ABM Treaty with a little modification. The treaty was concluded 30 years ago and was intended to prevent the building of a missile defense. It no longer, in my view, serves our interests. The other party, the Soviet Union no longer exists. And Russia is not an enemy of the United States. So, a treaty meant to regulate a deadly quarrel in which we were both poised at the ready with thousands of nuclear weapons just isn’t appropriate for a situation where the concern is not Russian nuclear weapons but Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapon or two or three. It’s another world. And with respect to the Chinese, the Cold War is over with respect to Russia. Happily it hasn’t begun with respect to China. Let’s hope it doesn’t.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: I think we can affect whether or not it begins with china. And, look, the rule of unintended consequences plays a significant role in our past history in foreign and defense policy. And again, I don’t question the motivation of President Bush. And again, I will wait to see what it is he is proposing. But I just do not think there should be any unilateral action taken. The urgency is not there at this moment. It is possible. Somebody could transfer this technology, but there is not an immediate need. We can move forward now. We spent what — $6 billion last year on research in this area, roughly? So, it’s not like we’re standing still. And I’m glad to see that this administration is taking what appears to be a very studied, conscientious and serious look at this. I don’t know how that can be done in two or three weeks and I don’t expect that to be the case. But there’s two forces here. There’s a congressional force that’s moving along here. I am much more satisfied with the way in which this administration seems to be approaching the issue. They say they need cohesion, they want a NATO alliance. They want us to be together. You have to be able to do….

MARGARET WARNER: Are you in agreement on this sort of urgency question or time frame question or do you think the administration needs to move quickly?

RICHARD PERLE: I don’t think we should run for the exit, but we should walk with deliberate speed. There’s one last issue that I think really deserves at least mention. If we depend on the military means we have now, that is, the threat to retaliate, and we don’t have a defense in the future, it raises a profound moral issue. Henry Kissinger has raised this and he was the architect of the ABM Treaty. Do we really want to kill millions of Iraqis who happen to live in Baghdad if Saddam does something terrible to us? That’s the only recourse we have now to discourage an attack on the United States. It’s far better to have a defense that doesn’t require us to kill civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both.


RICHARD PERLE: Appreciate it.