Washington — In the US Capitol, a roomful of conservatives are cheering for missile defense, over dessert. ``I'm for an arms race -- in defensive systems!'' cries activist Phyllis Schlafly. A block away, at 100 Maryland Ave., liberal lobbyists meet every Thursday and plot against President Reagan's ballistic-missile defense initiative. ``It's so big, we can't stop it. But we have to slow it down,'' says a participant in the meetings.
In Washington, a political fight is heating up over President Reagan's proposed nuclear missile shield.
The immediate battles will be over money for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ``star wars.'' But both sides know something far more fundamental is at stake: whether the US will reverse its nuclear strategy of the last 20 years, and erect any sort of missile defense.
SDI, after all, is an ambitious package, involving billions of dollars for research on lasers, high-speed electric cannons, and other exotic weapons. Its stated goal is an effective shield that eventually makes nuclear weapons unusable.
Congress could reject SDI totally, embrace it, or simply redirect the program's broad approach. Members of Congress might vote to protect US intercontinental missile bases, for instance, with rings of rocket interceptors. They could decide to defend a mixture of some missile bases and cities.
``There may be something there,'' muses Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, influential chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The conservatives crammed into a Capitol room last September represent one pole of this debate.
They had gathered for a meeting of the Coalition for the Strategic Defense Initiative, a lobbying group whose members include the Moral Majority and Citizens for Reagan.
A series of speakers thumped home the message that America needs a shield against Soviet missiles -- a broad effective shield, not just a demure little defense around Minuteman missile bases. Besides Phyllis Schlafly, longtime spokeswoman for conservative causes, hosts included Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York (``Whenever anyone asks, I say I'm a dove -- a heavily armed dove'') and Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming, a laser-weapons champion who complained that the Pentagon is not pursuing missile defense
with sufficient skill.
Underlying all the speeches, punctuated with the constant clatter of silverware, was the theme that the Soviets cannot be trusted, that defense and not arms treaties is the way to true security. Thus the coalition's purpose is to ``raise public awareness'' in support of SDI and perhaps to save SDI from itself.
The liberal lobbyists and their weekly huddle show the other pole of the strategic-defense argument. Thursdays at 1:00 p.m., representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Council for a Livable World, and other self-styled peace groups meet to coordinate their anti-SDI tactics. This ad-hoc committee has dubbed itself the Space Policy Working Group.
For the most part its members believe that new weapons systems are dangerous because they goad the Soviets into building new systems of their own, leaving both nations in the same strategic situation, but poorer. They feel arms control agreements, not new technology, represent real protection.
Missile defense ``is not going to end the arms race,'' says Union of Concerned Scientists lobbyist Charles Monfort. ``You'd still spend billions on countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures.'' Congress caught in the middle
Caught between these opposing camps, but so far paying little attention to either, is Congress. Though legislators have sawed the occasional hunk out of SDI's budget, they have done nothing to change the fundamental thrust of the program.
The SDI, after all, is just the sort of thing that Congress has trouble understanding. It's big and it's highly technical. The Capitol is swarming with lawyers, not physicists.
``Congress's knowledge of technology? It's abysmally poor,'' says Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio.
Senator Glenn, a former astronaut, says colleagues often ask his opinion of SDI. After several grand tours of US missile defense labs, Glenn says the experiments are impressive, but he's not sure when or if a working system could be built. ``This program is mind-boggling,'' he says.
Another reason Congress has yet to focus fully on SDI is that it has been fixated on another strategic-weapons acronymn: MX.
The MX missile was first proposed by the Pentagon more than a decade ago. Larger and more accurate than the venerable Minuteman, the MX was supposed to strengthen US land-based nuclear forces.
But Congress and the Pentagon kept arguing about where this wonder weapon was to be kept -- in silos clustered close together, on trains shuttling around vast tracts of land.
The argument went on so long that the MX became less proposed hardware and more a preeminent symbol of nuclear policy. Members had little attention for other strategic issues. But this year Congress voted to deploy 50 MXs in old Minuteman silos, and the issue appears closed.
``Many of the groups involved in the MX battle are now shifting to star wars,'' points out Kathleen Sheekey, a lobbyist for Common Cause, a public-interest lobby group.
Thus the SDI is entering a crucial period. In Geneva, it is one of the subjects on the table in arms control talks between the US and the Soviet Union. In Washington, it is beginning to gain prominence as an issue in Congress.
``The next year is going to be pivotal for SDI,'' says an aide to Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California, who supports the program.
There is no chance that Congress will soon kill the program. Among members there is a consensus that the US should have some sort of missile defense research.
The question, as it often does on Capitol Hill, will come down to money: Should SDI receive $26 billion over the next five years, as the Reagan administration has requested?
This year legislators waved their shears over the SDI budget and proclaimed victory. In an authorizing bill, $900 million was trimmed from SDI's 1986 budget request -- but the $2.75 billion that remained represented an increase of almost 100 percent over 1985.
Future SDI budget battles are likely to center on what the money goes for, as much as its absolute level. In particular, critics worry that SDI, as it is now shaped, will eventually stretch or break the terms of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
At issue here is the legality of 15 big experiments SDI plans to hold through the early 1990s. The ABM Treaty has traditionally been interpreted as banning ``development'' of ``components'' for other than land-based antiballistic missile systems, and critics contend some SDI demonstrations may violate this restriction. The Pentagon says the rest are allowable lab research, or involve ``subcomponents,'' not ``components.''
``It's a rather ambiguous situation,'' says Rep. George Brown (D) of California, who complains that the Pentagon has simply ``defined away the problem.''
So look for continued efforts in Congress to cut funds for major SDI tests. The Pentagon, for its part, is not just waiting to be cornered on this question: Officials recently floated a new interpretation of the ABM Treaty, saying it allows development of ``exotic technologies.''
To a certain extent, fights over treaty language and budget lines are so much dancing on the head of a Minuteman.
Focused on these narrow issues, SDI critics and supporters alike can forget the larger vision that Reagan held before the US public, and the political effect that vision has already had.
In calling for a world where nuclear weapons are ``impotent and obsolete,'' the President employed the sort of Utopian rhetoric associated with theologians and antinuclear activists, not politicians. Whatever the merits of the SDI program, Reagan's words alone have given him a moral sheen in voters' eyes, say even some critics.
``The arms control and peace communities were taken by surprise. The President has grabbed the moral high ground, somewhat,'' says James Wetekam, a lobbyist for the United Church of Christ Office for Church in Society.
Mr. Wetekam, part of the anti-SDI coalition of lobbyists, says Reagan has ``been effective to some extent'' in capturing public opinion for missile defense.
Capitol Hill committee staff members of all political persuasions generally agree. Public opinion? Few clear themes
Public opinion polls on the issue, however, show few clear themes. A recent roundup of star-wars surveys in Public Opinion magazine, published by the American Enterprise Institute, concludes that ``responses bounce all over, depending on which nerve the pollsters touch.''
Such movement, said the magazine, is typical when an issue is complicated and the public not well informed.
In general, the polls cited in the roundup show more people favor development of a star-wars system than oppose it. Opinions on what the system would actually do, however, skitter around like a cat on ice skates. Only one poll, a CBS News/New York Times effort, asked simply whether missile defense would work; 62 percent of respondents said that it could.
Building and keeping public support for missile defense is both necessary and difficult, admit administration officials.
The recognition of this fact has led pro- and anti-SDI groups outside the government to begin multimedia ad campaigns to try to build support for their positions.
``No one is going to write us a blank check and say, `Go, come back in 15 years and build us something,' '' says Gerald Yonas, SDI's chief scientist. To keep voters and Congress satisfied, SDI in the next few years will have to produce technical achievements that are the stuff of press releases, says Dr. Yonas.
SDI won't be able to produce these advances on its own. It will need help from defense-contractor friends. Such friends should not be hard to make, given that missile defense could be the biggest thing to hit the arms industry since the cost-plus contract.
SDI right now is just a research program, and thus still small change compared to such things as bulding Trident submarines. Boeing Aerospace is currently the No. 1 SDI contractor, with $130 million worth of business.
But if a missile shield ever goes into production, it would mean immense amounts of business -- rough estimates are that a full system would cost at least $800 billion.
Companies are thus elbowing each other in a race to become SDI favorites. Ten contracts to study missile-defense architectures, let last year, were among the most hotly contested in Pentagon history. With contracts for such big programs as the B-1 and Stealth bombers basically awarded, companies are looking at SDI as the last mother lode of untapped defense spending this century, one industry official says.
``SDI offers you the chance to get in on the ground floor of something really big,'' says Walter Edgington, GTE marketing vice-president.
Critics worry that this promise of money will make missile defense a pork barrel of the heavens, supported by Congress because of the jobs it provides, not because of its intrinsic virtue.
Seventy-seven percent of SDI research money has flowed to the districts of congressmen who sit on the key Armed Services or Appropriations Committees, according to an analysis released earlier this year by the Council on Economic Priorities.
But Mr. Reagan's words for missile defense have done more than argue morality and make corporate hearts beat faster. They have also launched a broad debate among university professors, think-tank scholars, and once and future government officials whose careers involve thinking about nuclear weapons. This debate is not so much about the President's vision as about whether a missile defense, however leaky, would be a good thing.
In concrete terms this means Congress could reject SDI's crash-program style and broad emphasis, yet still embrace the idea that defensive weapons could be a useful addition to America's offensive nuclear arsenal. A recent report from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment identified four possible levels of defenses, from limited protection for US military forces to an extremely capable shield. Arguments for strategic defense
Those in favor of defensive weapons usually begin their argument from the premise that US land-based nuclear missiles and control centers are dangerously vulnerable to Soviet attack. Furthermore, they add, US voters may grow faint in the face of today's assured nuclear destruction, and refuse to pay for new nuclear swords. ``Democratic publics will sooner or later retreat to pacifism and unilateral disarmament,'' writes former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.
Defensive weapons could be a politically attractive way to protect US forces, advocates say. If this is beginning to sound like a rerun from the 1960s, it is: The argument is similar to that put forward two decades ago when the US debated, but did not build more than a token a antiballistic missile (ABM) force. The difference in the 1980s is that modern technology would enable an ABM system to actually work, according to proponents.
Light, mobile defender rockets could be shifted from base to base, in a sort of nuclear poker with the USSR. Soviet military planners could never be sure what defensive forces were where, and therefore could never be sure a surprise nuclear strike would succeed, no matter their offensive strength, and therefore would never launch first.
``Defenses do not have to be nearly leakproof to be useful in deterring Soviet attack,'' concludes Fred S. Hoffman, nuclear theorist and head of a 1983 presidential study of the strategic implications of missile defense.
Critics reply, first of all, that the case for limited strategic defense is based on the mistaken premise of US weakness. While US land-based missiles may theoretically be vulnerable to their Soviet counterparts, say critics, US submarines are not. A single Trident sub has enough nuclear missiles to devastate vast tracts of the USSR; while such firepower cruises safely beneath the seas, only a madman would launch a nuclear strike against the US, claim missile-defense critics.
``A threat to the US retaliatory capability does not exist today and is not likely to arise during this century,'' writes former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.
Second, some critics complain that limited missile defenses would actually make the world a more dangerous place, because they would inflame Soviet distrust.
``Why? Because a leaky umbrella offers no protection in a downpour but is quite useful in a drizzle,'' says former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. In other words, a small-scale missile defense could not cope with an all-out Soviet attack. But if the US hit the USSR with a first strike, limited defenses could mop up the ragged Soviet retaliation.
Kremlin leaders, who suspect that the US yearns to once again be the world's supreme nuclear power, might thus respond to US defenses with provocative moves of their own -- perhaps an all-out offensive arms buildup, says Mr. McNamara. Central security issue in Congress
Work on limited defenses and an SDI-type full-dress program are not mutually exclusive. Differences involve timing and emphasis. SDI officials see limited systems as the first step toward bigger things; small-scale-defense advocates see SDI as a Cecil B. DeMille production that could stand budget cuts.
What seems clear is that this multifaceted debate -- big defense vs. small defense vs. no defense at all -- is becoming the central security issue in Congress, if not the whole Western alliance. Its prominence alone has changed the superpowers' relationship. It may distract the US from other matters worthy of attention. ``People always want to talk about SDI,'' grumbles Dr. Freeman Dyson, physicist and author of two acclaimed books on nuclear weapons. ``The Soviet offer of a comprehensive test-ban treat y, getting NATO to adopt a `no first use' nuclear strategy -- those things are a hundred times more important than SDI.''