The Russian foreign ministry last week rejected any changes to the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. That's a mistake.
The Clinton administration by law must decide by next June whether or not to deploy a limited defense system to defend against missile attack by rogue states. Such a system would violate the treaty.
Washington has offered the Russians ideas for amending the pact so the United States doesn't have to walk away from it - which it can legally do. Those ideas reportedly include US financial help in building a new missile-tracking radar in Siberia.
It's an extremely sensitive question for the Russians, who are feeling vulnerable just now. They're having difficulty maintaining the numbers of weapons they are allowed under START II, which they still haven't ratified. But they worry that a limited missile defense might expand into a full-fledged strategic defense against all missiles, threatening what they feel they most need, the ability to retaliate against a US first strike.
The problem is the increasing pressure on President Clinton to deploy a limited defense. Many in Congress, concerned about North Korean missile testing, Iran's missile program, and whatever Iraq's Saddam Hussein is up to, demand such defenses be built, and soon.
Conservatives argue that the ABM treaty became null and void with the breakup of the Soviet Union. They're backed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the United Nations.
We disagree. But that issue aside, many in Congress - perhaps a majority - are ready to leave the treaty and deploy, believing the security of American cities is at stake. That's why the Kremlin should agree to negotiate changes if it wants to keep the US in the treaty.
The issue is rapidly falling prey to election politics in both countries. No Russian candidate can look soft on defense of the motherland. No American politician can afford to let Russia veto a valid security option.
To give both sides breathing room and prevent a re-ignition of a needless arms race, Congress should put off the deadline for one year - to June 2001, well after both countries' elections. That would provide more time for US testing to ensure a reliable system can be built. And it would allow new administrations in Moscow and Washington to consider the matter in a cooler atmosphere.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society