The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM, has reined in the growth of nuclear weapons in the world's two leading nuclear powers -- Russia and the United States. Now, however, U.S. President George W. Bush appears ready to withdraw his nation from the treaty because Russia so far has refused to amend it to permit Bush to pursue a missile defense system. Russia is not alone in opposing the missile shield. Some prominent members of the U.S. Congress also object to it.
Washington, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush seems ready to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) rather than wait for Russia to agree to amending the pact.
Bush and his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, have not stated outright that Washington plans to abandon the treaty, but the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), says Bush announced his intentions during a breakfast meeting with congressional leaders yesterday.
Bush's decision is not surprising. Since he took office in January, he has made it clear that he believes the ABM is no longer relevant because it does not reflect the new, friendlier relationship between Washington and Moscow.
The treaty was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, at a time when each nation was accumulating enough nuclear weapons to destroy every city, and kill every human being, on the planet many times over.
The treaty seeks to prevent even further proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles by forbidding each side to set up a system of defending its territory from incoming missile attacks. It forbids even testing elements of such a system.
Now Bush hopes to deploy just such a system. He stresses that it is not meant to defend against sophisticated missiles in the Russian arsenal, but against cruder missiles that might be used against the U.S. by what the president calls "rogue nations" -- Iran or North Korea, perhaps -- or by terrorist organizations.
According to Bush, Russia is now America's friend, and so should not be disturbed that Washington hopes to defend itself. He argued his case most clearly during a news conference at the White House on the night of 11 October.
"I have told Mr. Putin that the ABM Treaty is outdated, antiquated, and useless, and I hope that he will join us in a new strategic relationship."
Since they met in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in June, Bush and Putin appear to have developed a great personal rapport. Yet, while professing his friendship for the U.S. and for Bush, Putin has stood fast against American's efforts to persuade him to accept amendments to the ABM Treaty. Even a visit to Bush's ranch in Texas last month failed to sway the Russian leader.
Finally, it appears Bush has decided to move unilaterally.
The treaty allows for withdrawal, in the event that one of the parties decides that "extraordinary events" have "jeopardized its supreme interests." Evidently Bush feels this way.
Bush's decision is unilateral in more than one respect, according to Daschle, the nation's highest-ranking member of the Democratic Party and thus the chief domestic political adversary of the president, who is a member of the Republican Party.
"This is something that ought to have been more carefully deliberated, I think, between both the legislative and the executive branch before a commitment was made. But it appears that that commitment has been made, and we're going to have to work through all of the what I consider to be negative ramifications."
The U.S. Constitution requires presidents to consult with Congress before taking most actions. There are some areas -- such as some aspects of national defense -- where the nation's chief executive is permitted to act on his own. Still, Daschle said he wants to make sure that Bush would be acting within the law by withdrawing the country from the ABM Treaty.
"It's my understanding that the president has the unilateral authority to make this decision. But we are researching just what specific legal options the Congress has, and we'll have more to say about that later."
Whatever Daschle's research finds, the majority leader said he expects a vigorous debate on the issue in Congress next year.
Daschle also seemed to side with Putin, and even some of America's allies, that unilateral withdrawal from the ABM could lead to exactly what the treaty was meant to prevent: a new arms race. And he said Bush's unilateral action could anger foreign governments that are normally friendly to the U.S.
"I'm very concerned about the implications of pulling out of the ABM Treaty, in part because I think it undermines the fragile coalition that we have with our allies. It causes real concern, I think, as we look at the implications for future commitments in our defense strategy and what it may mean in many other contexts. I think that it's going to complicate as well our relations with Russia, with China."
Another opponent of deploying a missile defense system is Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware). In a speech given three months ago, Biden said the great expense of developing the missile shield could not be justified at a time when a more likely threat to America is terrorism. Coincidentally, he delivered the speech on 10 September, the day before the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Bush and his aides respond that the terrorist attacks demonstrate the need for a missile shield. They say there is no reason to believe that a well-financed terrorist group, not unlike Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, could attack the U.S. with missiles armed with nuclear weapons.
This argument does not convince Biden. On the night of 11 December, he issued a statement saying it would be a mistake to abandon an arms-control treaty that has worked well for three decades.