Defending the US from enemy missiles is the overt aim of legislation that House and Senate Republicans are poised to approve. But GOP legislators also hope to use the issue of ballistic missile defenses to put some ideological distance between President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole, their party's presumed presidential candidate.
Mr. Clinton, who has promised a presidential veto, says the Defend America Act would waste taxpayers' money on a threat that does not yet exist. Mr. Dole says Clinton's opposition demonstrates that he can't be trusted with the nation's defense.
A Clinton veto will draw a sharp dividing line between two candidates whose views on a number of other major foreign policy issues roughly coincide.
"It should frighten American citizens that this administration is not living up to its constitutional obligation to protect our security," says Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, a leading proponent of the legislation. "We have a clear threat to our security that we have the technology to defend against but, so far, not the will."
"This is definitely veto bait," responds Joseph Cirincione, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a research group in Washington that specializes in arms control issues. "[Republicans] want this to be a campaign issue, because they think it works well for Dole and makes Clinton look weak."
The Defend America Act, which the House could approve as early as this week, calls for the construction by 2003 of a "highly effective" national missile-defense system consisting of radars, interceptor rockets, and satellite-tracking systems, and for the system to be augmented over time with additional "layers."
Long reach of rogue states
Supporters say the measure is needed because the United States is defenseless against attacks by China and Russia, which have nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the US, and by various rogue states, like North Korea and Iran, which are seeking to purchase or develop longer-range missiles that could be mounted with chemical or biological as well as nuclear warheads.
One symbol of US concern is the Taepo Dong 2 missile, which North Korea is racing to develop, which could reach Alaska and Hawaii, and which the Pyongyang government would aggressively market to other nations that pose a threat to the US and its allies around the world.
Opponents say any measure that would mandate deployment of a missile-defense system would be premature. They point out that Russia's nuclear arsenal is in the process of being cut back and that China's is so small that Beijing would never risk the massive retaliation that would result from an attack against the US.
Meanwhile, they estimate it could be a decade or more before smaller states acquire long-range missiles, allowing time for the US to investigate new antimissile technologies without committing to an actual deployment date.
The Congressional Budget Office last year estimated the minimum cost of an effective national missile defense system at $29 billion. The Pentagon, which has put a $2.8-billion cap on the development of such a system, says it prefers to wait three years before making a deployment decision.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has budgeted $2.3 billion next year to develop theater missile defenses that would protect US soldiers from the kind of short-range missiles now possessed by some two-dozen nations.
Whither the ABM treaty?
Overshadowing the debate is the effect the bills would have on the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which limits US and Soviet missile defenses.
Russian legislators have warned that if the US abrogates the ABM treaty, they will halt implementation of the START I strategic arms treaty and refuse to ratify START II. If fully implemented, the two treaties would reduce the number of US and Russian nuclear warheads to one-third their 1990 levels.
Defenders of the antimissile plan say the cost of preserving the ABM Treaty is too high if it means leaving the US exposed to missile attacks.
Clinton vetoed a defense bill last year that mandated deployment of a ballistic-missile-defense (BMD) system. This year, Republican lawmakers have split off BMD from the authorizing legislation, forcing Clinton to cast a high profile election-year veto.
The pending debate over BMD will have echoes of the debate over the "star wars" missile defense system proposed by President Reagan.
Supporters say the defense system called for in the Defend America Act can draw on the fruits of the $40 billion invested in star-wars research. With it, says Senator Cochran, the US can thwart nuclear blackmail by rogue governments.
"We can just imagine what kind of threat we could get [from states that possess long-range missiles]: 'If you don't comply with some request or stand down in defense of Israel or release known terrorists, we're going to send a missile on the way to New York,'" says Cochran.
Mr. Cirincione says the missile-defense system called for in the legislation misses the real threat, which is not missiles but individual terrorists carrying out attacks against the US with small, portable nuclear, chemical, or biological devices.
"There are real nuclear dangers out there, evil groups with evil intents, but they are much more likely to use truck bombs and suitcases to attack America than spend billions on a highly visible missile-delivery system that has a return address," he says.