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Western Press Review: Military Matters On May Day

Prague, 1 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With many continental European newspapers not publishing today because of the May Day holiday, our selection of commentary is limited to the Anglo-American press and to weekend opinion pieces. Among the available comments, the chief subject is the controversial U.S. plan for a national missile defense system, vigorously opposed by Russia.

WASHINGTON POST: The effort to please everyone has pleased no one

In an editorial headed "The Arms Control Knot," The Washington Post today writes of the missile project: "The Clinton Administration envisions a 'grand bargain' on arms control with Russia. For the U.S., there would be changes in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, treaty to permit deployment of a missile defense system against possible attack from states such as North Korea. For Russia, there would be both a Start Three treaty with further deep cuts in strategic arsenals and assurances that the U.S. defense system is not intended to diminish Russia's ability to deter a U.S. attack." All this, the paper says, might be called "a 'third way' approach to nuclear security."

"So far, however," the editorial goes on, "this effort to please everyone has pleased no one." It continues: "Many arms control advocates argue that it is reckless to endanger the ABM treaty for the sake of a system that could be thwarted by an attacker's counter-measures -- if it works at all. The Russians are reluctant to accept even a limited U.S. missile-defense, no matter what the inducements -- and have suggested that any U.S. attempt to deploy one would jeopardize existing U.S.-Russian arms deals."

The paper also says: "Arms control specialists want presidents [Bill] Clinton and [Vladimir] Putin, [who meet in Moscow next month,] to start thinking [of other possibilities]. One idea: If they can't agree to destroy more weapons, the presidents could agree to remove a large number of warheads from their launch-readiness state. President [George] Bush and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took such a 'reciprocal unilateral' step in 1991 when Start One ratification was pending. Today, it could help reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war -- and restore momentum to the process of arms-reduction."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Mr. Clinton has simply waited too long on missile defense

The Wall Street Journal Europe urges outgoing President Clinton "to take Russia's 'no' for an answer," and leave the missile problem to his successor. The paper writes: "The Administration has already wasted seven precious years in refusing to pursue a defense against this growing threat. With less than a year remaining of the Clinton era, the essential task now is to make sure the next president's hands aren't tied for the important job ahead." It adds: "If Mr. Clinton succeeds in doing a deal on the ABM Treaty [in Moscow], it will make it harder for the next president to get the job done quickly. It takes only a look at the proliferation of ballistic missiles world-wide to understand why speed is of the essence."

The paper's editorial continues: "No one should labor under the illusion that building a national missile defense will be easy or cheap." But, the paper argues, "it will be worth it, considering the alternative [that is, possible missile attacks by rogue states]. The best course of action right now," it says, is for "Mr. Clinton go to Moscow, pose for photos and by all means get to know President Putin. But Mr. Clinton has simply waited too long on missile defense. He should leave it to the next President to get on with the business of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and building a viable missile defense."

NEW YORK TIMES: Permitting limited missile defense systems could also benefit Moscow

Yesterday's New York Times called the U.S. project "missile shield illusion." The paper recalled: "More than [15 years] after Ronald Reagan first proposed it, the idea of shielding the nation against thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles has gained new life. Now as then, this Star Wars fantasy remains technologically unworkable. Unhappily," the paper adds, "the notion of an impenetrable missile defense now threatens not only to impede further, highly desirable cuts in nuclear weapons, but also to stand in the way of future agreement with Moscow on permitting more modest technologies that could protect the country against lesser attack by a rogue nation like North Korea."

The paper suggested that a more modest missile-defense plan might prove to be more feasible. It wrote: "Last week, the Administration presented Russia with proposals for adjusting the ABM treaty to permit construction to begin on the first phase of a limited missile defense system to guard against North Korea. Washington would also like to discuss, at a later date, possibly expanding this system to cover future threats from Iran or Iraq." But it added: "Given the technological obstacles, even these defenses will be difficult to produce."

The editorial summed up: "President Clinton's June meeting with [Russian President] Putin provides a timely opportunity to discuss both the ABM treaty and the next round of nuclear warhead reductions. Permitting limited missile defense systems could benefit Moscow, which also faces potential threats from North Korea or unpredictable Middle Eastern countries."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: A more thoughtful examination of the strategic and political consequences of missile-defense deployment has to be undertaken

The Los Angeles Times yesterday was even more skeptical about an all-out U.S. national defense system, calling it an "unworkable" plan. The paper wrote that test failings and the enormous cost of the project add up "to an overwhelming case for moving cautiously with this unproven and expensive venture. More time is needed to develop the technology needed to discriminate between real warheads and decoys. And certainly a more thoughtful examination of the strategic and political consequences of [missile-defense] deployment has to be undertaken."

The editorial went on: "Russia has hinted that it might abandon all strategic arms agreements if [the U.S. plan] goes ahead. The great danger in that event is not so much from Russia's thousands of remaining missiles and warheads but from the risk that Moscow would peddle its missile and weapons technology to others, including North Korea, Iran and Iraq. In that event, "the paper concludes, "the security threats to the U.S. would be multiplied. That contingency," it says, "should give pause even to those who so heedlessly dismiss Russia's response to [the U.S. plan] as of no consequence."

IRISH TIMES: It is important that the U.S. does not play into the hands of those who would welcome a return to the Cold War

The Irish Times today remarks on "May Day in Moscow," saying: "The [holiday's] traditional image has faded [since 1992's dismantlement of the Soviet Union]. Tanks and trucks bearing missiles no longer trundle through Red Square to show to the world and to the Russian people the military might at the disposal of the Kremlin." But, the paper adds, "the NATO action in Serbia and Western criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya have changed attitudes, and in last year's events a touch of the old anti-Western bitterness returned."

The editorial then notes that "President-elect Putin has moved toward the high moral ground in the area of nuclear non-proliferation. Start Two has been ratified [by Russia's State Duma] and radical plans have been proposed for Start Three." It says that "compromise on the numbers of missiles to be demolished in Start Three could lead to compromise on the modification of ABM." It then argues that "this would allow the U.S, without alienating Russia, to construct a missile shield against attack from countries such as North Korea which, in any event, have yet to demonstrate their ability to deliver warheads at medium to long range."

The paper concludes by praising Putin for last month showing what it calls "remarkable flexibility in befriending Britain's Prime Minister, [Tony] Blair, who, just a year earlier, had been painted by the Kremlin as the 'chief warmonger' of NATO's Yugoslav campaign." It warns against any "humiliation of Russia" by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, arguing: "There are those marching in Moscow today who would welcome a return to the Cold War. It is important that the U.S. does not play into their hands."