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Western Press Review: Western Media Take Aim At Missile Defense

Prague, 7 July (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary -- sometimes described as "all knowing, too late" -- focuses today on two prospective events: tonight's test of a U.S. missile defense system, and next week's scheduled Mideast peace summit.


The U.S. news weekly Time says in its current (dated July 12) issue that the United States appears on an inexorable path to deploying an NMD -- National Missile Defense -- system whether or not it violates treaties and whether or not it even stands a good chance of working.

In a Time commentary, Christopher John Farley writes: "The heart of [former U.S. president] Ronald Reagan's 1983 Star Wars program lives on, kept beating by a mix of election-year politicking, behind-the-scenes defense-industry puppeteering (that is, lobbying anonymously through third parties), and a fiercely committed group of conservative think tanks (that is, non-governmental policy organizations) and antimissile-systems advocates. It has propelled the [NMD] toward [today's] scheduled test over the Pacific and is likely to move its development forward no matter the result."

Time reports in a news article in the same edition that the U.S. Defense Department has confirmed that NMD tests from today through the year 2004 will be conducted under conditions far more favorable than an actual attack would allow. Farley comments: "The NMD's limitations are still severe. Critics argue that simple countermeasures by enemy states -- such as the use of radar-absorbing materials or balloon decoys -- may be enough to foil the United States' pricey shield."


The Financial Times, London, characterizes the NMD today in an editorial as, among other things, a U.S. election issue. The newspaper says this:

"The test rockets that the United States will send thundering into space over the Pacific should help wake the rest of the world up to some of what is at stake in the U.S. presidential election. It will be the third test of a possible National Missile Defense system decried by many American allies as well as rivals. Success or failure of this particular test may be irrelevant," the Financial Times says. "Any decision the lame-duck President Bill Clinton takes on NMD must remain tentative until his successor enters the White House next January. And George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, and Al Gore, the Democratic banner-carrier, both favor giving the United States an anti-missile shield."

The British paper notes: "But the election campaign has flushed out one very important difference. Mr. Bush has declared himself a unilateralist, saying he would have no compunction in breaking out of what he calls an outdated Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia in order to build an anti-missile system, while Mr. Gore shares Mr. Clinton's ambiguity on this point.

"Nothing irritates the world more than Washington's tendency to do its own thing, whether sidestepping United Nations obligations, killing arms control treaties or imposing politically motivated trade sanctions. But in recent years, this has been mainly Congress's doing. A President Bush would reinforce this unilateralism. Mr. Gore's eight-year partnership with Mr. Clinton would make him less likely to jettison their policies of relative accommodation towards Russia and China and close cooperation with European allies."


The Wall Street Journal Europe carries a commentary today by Frederick Seitz, past president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Seitz says, "The science behind missile defense is solid, and we certainly do possess the capabilities to defend ourselves. The only things holding us back are outdated treaties and a lack of political will."

Seitz contends that NMD is feasible -- if it is deployed properly. As he puts it: "It is clear that the ground-based defense the Clinton administration favors could be overwhelmed by submunition -- bomblets carrying chemical or biological weapons. But a sea- and space-based system would be capable of destroying the missiles before the bomblets could be released." He concludes: "What the opponents of missile defense really are advocating is that [the United States] do nothing until [it] can do everything."

The New York Times presents an opposite viewpoint today, written by Theodore A. Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and George N. Lewis, associate director of MIT's Security Studies Program. They say the missile defense test scheduled for today will be such a setup that it will prove nothing.

The writers put it this way: "A success in today's well-publicized test of a missile defense weapon system, the Clinton administration claims, will establish that national missile defense technology is ready for deployment. But unfortunately, bagging the sort of precooked and strapped-down chicken of a target that is being used today will do nothing of the sort. If Americans want a real test of the Pentagon's missile defense system, they should insist that it be designed by someone other than the Pentagon."

The MIT professors add: "The Defense Department discovered a program-stopping flaw in its system in tests three years ago: The system can easily be fooled by decoys nearly as simple as the traffic cones we encounter on the street or the Mylar balloons that are so popular at the zoo."

Turning to the Mideast, German commentator Thorsten Schmitz writes today from Tel Aviv in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that if Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak makes any concessions to the Palestinians in the United States next week, he will have no political allies -- except perhaps the people of Israel.

Schmitz says, "Barak has not been able to count on his own government or the Knesset for support for ages, and he cannot do so now. Perhaps, though, he can still count on the Israeli people, who must give their consent in the form of a referendum to any peace treaty with the Palestinians. So far, all of the public opinion polls verify that the majority of Israelis want peace -- and not pig-headed politicians posing as responsible members of the cabinet."

Deborah Sontag writes from Jerusalem today in a New York Times news analysis that, even given his isolation, Barak will do his best. She writes: "Mr. Barak will seek to forge the framework of a final peace deal with the Palestinians on the basis of what he considers a directive from the Israeli people, who overwhelming elected him last year on a platform of peacemaking. And if he fails, he said today, he will have given it his best effort in the face of a potential for the conflict to disintegrate [here she quotes Barak's own words] 'into Belfast or Bosnia.' "