If his missile defense plan wins the day, President Bush will be eroding a core strategy of United States security: deterring an enemy by guaranteeing its destruction.
Rather than counting mainly on warhead yields, the US will be betting on antimissile shields. Or, to put it in medieval terms: Rather than rely just on better catapults, the US will build higher castle walls.
But at what price?
Mr. Bush's speech on Tuesday (see story, page 1) set a challenge for Americans to rethink what makes a secure world and who their enemies are. The president will need popular support for such a costly and risky change of strategy.
The risks lie in paying a hefty price for a system that, in the end, may not work as well as it should, especially when "rogue" states don't need missiles to deliver weapons of mass destruction (e.g., chemical or biological weapons). In the meantime, other portions of the military budget will likely need to be cut to pay for such an expensive high-tech system. The Pentagon and Congress may not go for that.
Another risk lies in Russia and China believing they will lose their nuclear threat over the US and then making up for it in ways that pose new threats. Key allies, too, such as Japan and Germany, may decide that a US shield (even over them) may not defend them in a pinch, and so they must go nuclear.
Mr. Bush's plan would have more credibility if he also put more resources into other ways to make the US more secure, such as beefing up the diplomatic corps, offering more aid and trade to troubled lands, and backing pro-democracy causes. These "soft" defenses are too often overlooked.
For half a century, the world has lived with the possibility of nuclear war. The end of the cold war reduced that horrible risk, and now Mr. Bush may be rightly turning away from the strategy of "mutual assured destruction," or MAD.
But he must ensure that technology, American public opinion, and allies support justify an antimissile system. His plan to spend $8 billion over seven years, leading up to an initial deployment, is probably too ambitious by many measures.
Bush is asking the right questions. But his answer still needs work.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor