President Bush's decision to deploy a portion of a missile defense system much sooner than expected - by 2004 - seems like a desperate act. Three acts, in fact:
The first is an immediate worry by the administration that a belligerent North Korea might soon fire its already-tested long-range Taepo Dong missile toward Alaska, loaded with a not-yet-tested nuclear device, in that country's own act of desperation.
If such a fear is valid, the White House certainly isn't showing it by ramping up the alternative to missile defense: a much tougher diplomacy on North Korea to persuade it to eliminate its missile program altogether. The Clinton administration did obtain a promise from the communist regime in 1999 to shelve the Taepo Dong project, a year after the North tested the missile near Japan.
What has Bush done to make sure that promise sticks? His diplomats can barely handle a surge of anti-Americanism sweeping US ally South Korea after two US soldiers accidentally killed two local girls.
The second act of desperation can be seen in the planned deployment of only a few interceptors well before all the key parts - such as radar that can detect decoys - are even close to ready.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld justifies this premature deployment as a sort of learn-by-doing necessity, with no hard promise that a limited system will stop a missile. The Pentagon, rather than continue to be criticized for more failed tests during the development phase, may be eager to plant a portion of the system in a real situation, hoping its many critics will just accept this risky technology.
The third act of desperation appears to be political. Mr. Bush promised in his 2000 campaign to deploy missile defense, and he may be eager to make sure Congress starts paying for deployment in case a Democrat wins the White House in 2004 or 2008 and tries to dismantle the system. Also, it's extra lucrative for Republican campaign coffers if Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, etc. are ably employed.
These objections to early deployment do not mean the US doesn't face a long-term missile threat. China, Iran, and even Russia could become dangerous in this regard in years ahead. Republicans, and even many Democrats, have pushed for such a system since Ronald Reagan's 1983 Star Wars speech. But Congress must not rubber-stamp the initial deployment without asking difficult questions about the threat, the technology, and the politics of the Bush plan.