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Western Press Review: U.S. President Bush Promotes Missile Defense

Prague, 2 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Many commentators in Britain and the United States examine U.S. President George W. Bush's speech last night on missile defense, and their conclusions tend to the unfavorable. The speech came too late for most continental European newspapers to comment.


From London, the "Independent" condemns not only the U.S. plan to invest thousands of millions of dollars in antimissile defense, but also the British government's failure to oppose it. The newspaper says in an editorial: "Mr. Bush yesterday telephoned the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in what was apparently intended as a message of reassurance, not least in respect of proposed cuts in America's nuclear arsenal. But these cuts do nothing to change the other, more glaring truth. America cannot behave as though it were the only country in the world, happy -- as one analyst put it -- to 'unleash nuclear anarchy.' The reaction from Downing Street has been supine, talking of 'sympathy' for the American proposals. An act of foolishness should, however, publicly be identified as such. Failure to speak out is potentially dangerous for all."


The "Washington Post" takes a more balanced stance. In an editorial, the newspaper lists flaws in National Missile Defense planning but refers to the president's promise of consultations as "the right approach." The editorial says: "The U.S. missile defense program long has run the risk of making the world less rather than more secure, and of increasing rather than assuaging tension among the United States, its allies, and potential adversaries such as Russia and China. Allies, particularly in Europe, suspect that the United States will use missile defense as a substitute for multilateral treaties and alliances, while China and Russia fear a U.S. effort to gain a decisive strategic advantage."

The editorial goes on: "Though the prospect of outlaw nations such as Iraq or North Korea acquiring long-range missiles has provided a new and more compelling rationale, these diplomatic problems have persisted. So, too, have the technological difficulties. Studies by Pentagon-appointed panels have shown that a defense system that can overcome even relatively simple countermeasures has yet to be developed."

Referring to the president's promise of "real consultations," the newspaper concludes: "That is the right approach. In the end the United States cannot grant other nations veto power over its pursuit of its own defense. But Mr. Bush appears to have embraced an important principle: If missile defense is to increase the safety of the United States, it must also enhance the safety and stability of the world."


The "New York Times" also withholds final judgment while observing present shortcomings. It says: "After years of research and investment, the United States has yet to produce a defense that can shoot down a single warhead. The development effort should continue because nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are likely to perfect long-range missiles in the years ahead. But," the paper adds, "Mr. Bush must be realistic. The kind of space-based laser weapons that Ronald Reagan promoted as president remain improbable. It would be wiser, as Mr. Bush suggests, to work with more feasible technologies, including ground- or sea-based systems that can disable a missile during the initial phase of flight when it is far easier to target than a warhead streaking through space. It would be politically and financially reckless to start building an antimissile system before the technology is perfected. And the idea attributed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of mounting an imperfect system to sow doubt among potential adversaries would actually inhibit the needed research."

The editorial continues: "Mr. Bush has now defined his goals. The world will get a better picture of his specific intentions later this year when he fills in the details. At that point, it will not be hard to tell whether he is following the patient and deliberate course he set yesterday or instead is embarked on an irresponsible effort to dismantle the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty and erect a missile defense system before he has made the necessary diplomatic and technical preparations."


The "Financial Times" writes unequivocally about what it calls "a costly experiment." Its editorial says: "President George W. Bush asked the world on Monday to believe that the cause of peace would be served by his controversial proposals to create defenses against possible ballistic missile attacks. In doing so, he called for the burial of Cold War thinking about Mutual Assured Destruction and gave new life to an argument that has raged in the U.S. for half a century."

The editorial says further: "Successive proponents of missile defense have promised wonder-weapons that could 'zap' incoming missiles with x-ray lasers, or 'hit-to-kill' vehicles, or mini-satellites -- called 'Brilliant Pebbles' -- that could home in on missiles and blow them up."

It concludes: "Such claims have been treated for decades with skepticism by scientists, the Pentagon military bureaucracy, and foreign governments. Even so, Ronald Reagan promised in his 1983 Star Wars speech to make nuclear weapons 'impotent and obsolete' -- though his Strategic Defense Initiative resulted in no new defense systems."


"Los Angeles Times" writer Jim Walsh says in a commentary that there are economic, technical, and strategic objections to the missile defense scheme. But he says: "There is another issue, however, that has received far less attention. [To] build political support for the missile defense initiative, Bush has suggested that he will share this advanced technology with Japan, our NATO allies, South Korea, Israel and until recently, Taiwan. In short, the president proposes that the U.S. become a major proliferator of missile technology."

Walsh continues: "Make no mistake about it. Despite its clever name, missile defense is more missile than defense. It does not depend on some space-age force field to provide a shield. It is simply one missile fired at another missile, one weapon meant to shoot down another."

The commentator finds "Bush's plans to share missile technology [deeply] ironic. The U.S. frequently has criticized other nations, including Russia and North Korea, for selling missile technology. U.S. interest in halting the spread of missile technology was so great that we pushed a multilateral agreement to prevent it.

"But who's the rogue proliferator now?" Walsh asks. "The technology transfers proposed for our friends in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East do not involve some primitive SCUD-like rocket, but rather some of the most sophisticated missile and radar systems yet devised. Such transfers clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the [non-proliferation] agreement. Yet the real crime here is not the double standard but that such a policy is likely to undermine American security."


Steven Mufson, commenting in the "Washington Post," summarizes and interprets Washington reaction. He writes: "In his missile defense speech yesterday, President Bush proclaimed that 'the sun comes up on a vastly different world.' But some say the sun hasn't quite set on the old world yet. Bush made arguments for pursuing every type of missile defense system, and declared that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the idea of mutually assured destruction that kept nuclear peace since World War Two need to be replaced with 'new concepts of deterrence.'"

Mufson continues: "Not everyone who heard the speech was ready to sign up as a nuclear New Ager. Democrats and other critics responded that the new missile defense systems remain unproven and expensive. And they said that the old concepts of deterrence are still useful for keeping peace among the major powers as well as intimidating smaller 'rogue states' such as Iraq and North Korea."