Senior Defense and State Department officials have returned to the United States following a series of discussions in Western Europe, Russia, and Asia on Washington's controversial missile defense project. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley spoke with a missile defense expert outside the government whose assessment of the consultations is that they were uneventful.
Washington, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One of Washington's leading experts on missile defense issues says President George W. Bush and his senior advisers will have to provide a great deal more detail on what they have in mind for a U.S. missile defense system before serious discussions on the issue can get started.
However, Brookings Institution senior fellow James Lindsay told RFE/RL that the consultations senior administration officials conducted in Asia, Russia, and Western Europe last week produced no real surprises.
"The Europeans listened politely, asked lots of questions, discovered that the administration delegations weren't able to fill in a lot of detail. That will be forthcoming, and until you get more detail and firm proposals, you can't expect to get firm responses from the Europeans."
The Russians, said Lindsay, also posed many questions, "not all of which the administration delegation was able to answer satisfactorily." He said, though, that the U.S. "can take comfort in the fact that both sides are talking."
Bush sent Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Under Secretary of State For Europe Mark Grossman to bring leaders of several nations up to date on the Bush administration's plans to proceed with creation of the missile defense system.
The delegations visited - among other places -- NATO alliance headquarters in Brussels, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Ukraine, Tokyo, and New Delhi. In addition, senior officials also are holding talks this week in Canada.
The State Department officially characterized last week's round of consultations as productive. Spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters:
"Generally we've found that our allies and friends have welcomed the consultations, they've reacted positively to the administration's efforts to discuss the issues with them before we make major decisions. We obviously appreciate the willingness of the allies to discuss this issue and to engage with us in a constructive and cooperative approach."
The U.S. contends that a defensive system able to intercept and destroy an enemy's missiles heading for targets on U.S. soil is essential in the 21st-century strategic environment. Russia has raised objections to the projected system on grounds it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Russia considers the treaty a cornerstone of arms control. European allies have also been skeptical.
U.S. officials have stressed that the system is not intended to subvert nuclear deterrence with Russia, or with China. The system, the U.S. says, is meant to protect the country from an attack by a hostile nation or a terrorist organization.
Lindsay, who served on the White House National Security Council during President Bill Clinton's second term, told RFE/RL that the Bush administration has "sketched out some broad views," but has not yet provided concrete details on its plans. Absent those details, he says there cannot be a substantive debate, either in the U.S. Congress, or among allies and other nations.
He said the administration also has not established a timetable for advancing the discussions.
"The administration has not signalled. It all depends on whether the administration knows what it wants to do or not and at this point you can only take the administration at its word when it says it is not sure what it wants to do and is conducting these consultations as it tries to figure out what steps it wishes to take and only administration officials know how long it's going to take them to do (that)."
There is opposition within the U.S. to the missile defense system proposed by the president, a Republican. Senator Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate, and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, have criticized the program as costly and unnecessary.
A leading nongovernmental critic of the missile defense concept, William Hartung of New York City's World Policy Institute, contended on 14 May that the Bush administration has exaggerated the threat of a missile attack on the U.S. itself by an enemy.
Hartung asserted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld overstated the threat in a 1998 report written by a bipartisan commission that Rumsfeld, then outside the government, was appointed by President Clinton to head.
Hartung told a Washington briefing on defense issues that the Rumsfeld Commission "vastly overstated the potential threats to the United States basically by engaging in worst-case scenarios," such as the acquisition by North Korea of a Chinese ballistic missile and warhead. Hartung contends such a scenario is highly unlikely.
Regardless of where the debate on missile defense leads, the Brookings Institution's Lindsay says the consultations with world leaders last week can be seen as beneficial to the Bush administration.
"From the administration's point of view, after having brought the objections of nearly the entire international community on their head for the cavalier way they dismissed the Kyoto treaty, (on global warming) clearly this idea of listening first before deciding has a lot of pluses. But at the end of the day we still do not know the answer to the real question: whether these delegations were simply a bit of public relations designed to avoid a Kyoto-like response or whether it was a genuine effort to solicit the views of other countries, and we're not going to know that for quite some time, until the point that the administration makes some firm policy choices about specific architectures and steps they want to take on not only defensive but offensive nuclear weapons."
In Congress, at least, the debate on missile defense is likely to take shape this summer as the Congress considers the Defense Department's budget.