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an interview with bradley graham

Bradley Graham is a veteran Pentagon reporter for The Washington Post and the author of Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack (2001). [Read an excerpt.] In this Web-exclusive interview with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson, he offers his perspective on how missile defense fits into the Bush administration's foreign policy and national security strategy, and how the so-called "Bush Doctrine" may affect the politics of missile defense on the domestic front.

There's been a lot said in the last few months about the Bush administration's approach to the world, the so-called "Bush Doctrine." And especially now, with Iraq, this question isn't going away. How does the administration really view missile defense, in terms of its larger national-security strategy? Does missile defense become less important, or less relevant, in light of the policies Bush is putting forward, such as pre-emption?

I don't think it's any less relevant in their minds. They think it's an essential element across the spectrum of weapons, both offensive and defensive, that the United States needs, even with the greater emphasis this administration has put on pre-emptive attack. There's always the prospect of the U.S. being surprised, or pre-emption somehow not working, in which case, you know, a missile defense system would be very important.

But in addition to simply the defensive function that missile defense serves, there is clearly, with this administration, including in the mind of the President himself -- because he brought up this rationale when I interviewed him for my book -- that missile defense serves as an enabler for the projection of American military power and action around the world. Which is to say that knowing we would be less vulnerable to missile attack, or to blackmail, the United States could feel freer to intervene or to come to the aid of allies and friends around the world.

And this is an argument that the Bush administration has added, basically, as a rationale for missile defense. And it holds up, in their minds, even with the added emphasis on pre-emption.

Now, as for the military chiefs, they have long argued -- some of them, anyway, in their reluctance to actively push for a national missile defense -- some of them have argued that it really is not so necessary as other new weapons systems, because the U.S., if it ever got intelligence about an imminent launch, would just take out the missile [with a pre-emptive strike].

Bush's articulating this idea -- that there is another rationale for missile defense besides defense, that it does have a power-projection element to it -- seems like a new thing. Is the Bush administration the first to come out and say that publicly? Reagan, for example, always sold it strictly in terms of defense, a protective shield.

The Bush administration has articulated it, but even some of Clinton's national-security aides, when asked why in the last years of the Clinton administration they had come around to endorsing the idea of National Missile Defense -- at least in the context of a limited system and preservation of the ABM Treaty -- would cite situations like the 1991 Gulf War, or the crisis in the mid-90s over the North Korean nuclear development, or the Taiwan Straits. And [they asked], had the United States and its allies been faced with an Iraq that had a long-range nuclear-armed missile, or a North Korea that did, would the reaction have been different? Would the United States have felt more inhibited, and would allies have felt more inhibited about joining the United States? ... So it was a factor for them, although I don't think they articulated it to the extent that Bush and his aides now have.

How does that particular argument, that rationale, sit politically? If the Clinton administration didn't talk about it openly, the Bush team now seems to be saying, "Is it about offense? Well, sure it's about offense. That's what we're all about here. We're all about offense."

There's a risk for Bush, in putting too much emphasis on that argument, that it will again arouse concerns among the Russians and Chinese, and our European allies, about just where the United States is going with this effort and just what the purpose of it is. To the extent that it's seen essentially as driven by defensive factors, I think it's more acceptable to our allies and partners.

But one of the main underlying fears that the Russians and Chinese have had about this drive for national missile defenses is that it's yet another way of reinforcing American hegemony and military dominance around the globe. And so this additional rationale for missile defense in support of U.S. power projection simply reinforces those concerns.

Do you agree that maybe one reason there wasn't as much of a fuss over the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty is that Russia and China know that, when it comes to missile defense, there's no "there" there? Surely they are aware of all the technological difficulties involved, and that any deployment of a credible missile defense is a long way off, and that it may never be workable. How does that factor in to their thinking?

My guess would be that they figure that if the U.S. does push ahead, at least they do have time themselves to figure out how to respond. In the case of the Russians, there's a prospect still of finding some way of cooperating with the United States, and finding some way to share in some of the technological gains. There's the same prospect for the Chinese, although it hasn't really been discussed. For them the plan seems to be to increase their own arsenal of weapons so that they might be in a better position to overcome at least a limited U.S. defense. ...

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So, after Sept. 11, do you see missile defense playing a significant role in the Bush foreign policy? And if it is as much about power-projection as about defense, how does that sit in terms of domestic politics? If that rationale becomes part of the sales pitch for it, would that make it a harder sell?

I think missile defense remains a very high priority for this administration. You can see that by the amount of money that continues to be spent on missile defense. The administration has not reduced the amount that's sought for missile defense since Sept. 11. And they've planned to have a very rudimentary capability in place by the 2004 presidential election, as further indication that they want to be able to claim significant progress in this area at the end of Bush's first term.

There's also, still, the more traditional rationale of having a missile defense system just for defensive purposes. I mean, that hasn't disappeared. But I don't think any of these arguments really have gotten much public attention, with the larger public, because there just hasn't been a very big national debate about missile defense.

The administration was able to withdraw from the ABM Treaty with astonishingly little uproar, domestically or abroad, it turned out. I say astonishing because six or twelve months before, people had been warning about dire consequences from such a move. And by the time the moment came, you know, post-Sept. 11, it looked a little different and the focus of attention was elsewhere. I see no sign of the public getting worked up about missile defense enough to really trigger a very lively, broad debate about just where the administration is going with this program. At least not so long as the focus remains on combating terrorists and weapons of mass destruction around the world. ...

You would see missile defense becoming a big issue if, for instance, the United States were actually attacked by a ballistic missile. I think an event like that would actually galvanize public support very much in favor of missile defense.

And how likely is that to happen?

Well, at this point, it's very unlikely that we would be attacked by a long-range missile. I mean, there's certainly a prospect of somehow a shorter-range missile getting into position, being launched -- a ballistic missile, or even a cruise missile.

Is the short-range threat seen as more immediate, more urgent?

There's no debate over the need to protect U.S. troops in the field against what are called "theater" ballistic missiles. There's bipartisan support for that. We saw it in the Gulf War in 1991 with the Iraqi Scud missile attacks. And that's a very real threat. And everybody's in agreement that we need better defenses against those kinds of battlefield weapons. The argument still, among those who are still interested in the debate, is over whether all that we're spending on development of a national system against intercontinental-range weapons is really all that urgent, and worth the cost.

And, you know, while a missile attack on the United States would certainly shift the whole country four-square behind development of a national missile defense system, I think conversely, a continued difficulty in developing an effective defense after more and more billions are spent in the next few years, could again prompt debate and argument over whether we're just pouring more national resources down a black hole. But I don't think that kind of debate's likely to come in the next year or two. The Bush administration now does have some freedom of action, not a blank check, but a check to see if its approach can work.

I don't think the stars have ever been better aligned in this country in favor of pursuing a national missile defense than right now. You've got the ABM Treaty constraints removed, you have a president who has made this a high priority, you have a Congress willing to approve the money. There have been some technological gains with this hit-to-kill technology, using a missile to hit a speeding missile. In the long up-and-down history of missile defense, there have never been as many factors lined up in favor of actually achieving some kind of missile defense than there are now.

So, if they can't do it now, if they can't do it in the next few years -- I don't know, I've heard some people involved in the program say, "They'll probably never be able to do it." So, we'll see.

So if the lights are green and, as you say, the stars are aligned, then this is the moment of truth, in a way? In other words, when the next decision about deployment comes along, the next self-imposed deadline, which is 2004, it may get more interesting because the stakes are higher?

Much of the ideological argument has been diffused now -- the focus of the debate will be on issues like performance and cost in the months and few years to come. So, yes, at some point we're going to -- this administration seems determined to -- actually get to a deployment decision. And at some point we're going to get locked into a technology, a base technology, and build something. And that will require an even bigger investment. They've designed the system in a way that they say they're going to be constantly improving it and updating it, and so on. But when you start pouring concrete and erecting things on it, you know, then the expense becomes even more significant.

We hear how passionate the proponents of missile defense are about this, that for those on the right it's a "theology," and so on. But what about the critics? As a reporter who's covered this for a long time, what is your perspective on the critics? Why are they so passionate about this issue?

Well, there are a number of factors. First, you have to consider what's at stake. For much of the Cold War, the United States held to a doctrine that said the best defense was not really to erect a defense, but to have this mutual balance of terror. And the thinking was that if one side erected a defense, it would just spur the other side to increase their offensive arsenals. And this doctrine of deterrence and "mutual assured destruction" is largely credited with keeping the peace throughout the Cold War. So the argument from some missile defense critics is, "You tamper with what has worked at your own peril. Why change now?" That's one argument.

Another argument is a scientific one. There's a real question about whether this stuff could ever really work. And if you feel it's just such a long-shot, you know, why spend so much money on trying to make it work? There's the whole affordability argument, tradeoffs. What are we sacrificing? And this is part of the concern of the military chiefs. It would be nice to have a missile defense, but there are other things -- military modernization and transformation is expensive -- and the money that's going to missile defense means we don't have as much money as we'd like to speed the transformation of other military forces.

But beyond these arguments over doctrine, scientific feasibility, and fiscal affordability, there is a larger factor about missile defense that has made it a kind of litmus test for the political right and left in this country. It's taken on a kind of transcendent, symbolic significance over where one stands on the issue of how best to keep America militarily strong -- whether through arms advances or arms accords, whether through military buildups or diplomatic building blocks. And seen in this light, the issue of missile defense isn't really just about missile defense; it's about the best way to sustain American military prominence.

And so in this sense, the fight over missile defense has taken on an almost theological quality. In fact, the fervor of the debate sometimes reflects a kind of religious intensity. You hear it in the terminology that has been used. You have critics of missile defense talking about the "sanctity" of the ABM Treaty, and you have proponents of missile defense talking about the "morality" of building a national anti-missile shield.

And I think there's one other factor, too, that's important here. The quest for some kind of weapon that would make the United States invulnerable taps into a kind of universal and timeless yearning. It goes back to ancient days -- Zeus had his Aegis cloak. And that striving for invulnerability is a very human kind of thing. But there's also something about the missile defense debate that makes it a distinctly American story. For a very long time, being bordered by these two great oceans, we felt distant and protected against the whims of far-off dictators. But with the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile, an historical sense of invulnerability has been challenged. And so there is, I think, a desire by proponents of missile defense to somehow restore the United States to that vanished sense of invulnerability.

And on Sept. 11, it may not have been a missile that hit us, but it certainly added to that sense of vulnerability?

Yes, it heightened the sense of vulnerability. In that sense Sept. 11 does serve the Bush administration's argument for all kinds of weapons. We'd better protect Americans against all threats, some of which may seem very remote. Because the notion of commercial airliners being hijacked and flown into American symbols of power had seemed about as remote prior to Sept. 11 as a long-range missile attack by North Korea.

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