Spacey on Defense

If Republicans are hoping to hammer President Clinton for his anticipated veto of the Defend America Act of 1996, they're likely to hit their own thumb instead.

That legislation, now being readied for launch toward the White House by Messrs. Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, would pour billions more into building a national ballistic-missile defense system, to be up and running by 2003.

This "star wars" theme has been a GOP favorite for over a decade now, dating back to the cold-war days when Soviet missiles posed a very real threat. China has long-range missiles too, but the probability of a US "massive retaliation" deters it - likewise for Russia. The threat most often mentioned now is a "rogue" missile fired off by the likes of North Korea or Libya. The trouble is, no such threat exists today because the technology doesn't exist in those places, and probably won't for at least 15 years. Devices smuggled in by terrorists may be a more imminent threat, but missile defenses don't address it.

This doesn't mean nothing should be done. Research on missile defenses is prudent insurance against future threats, and such research is funded in the administration's defense budget. Shorter-range missiles are an immediate danger to US forces stationed overseas, as Iraq's Scuds demonstrated during the Gulf war. Theater missile defenses thus make sense and should have a faster development track, as in fact they do.

To try to invert these priorities and make a pitch for quick development of a system for national defense, which could cost anywhere from $5 billion to $50 billion, depending on its extent, is foolishness. It would divert money from more-important defense needs. It makes neither budgetary nor military sense. And when the facts are laid before the American public, Republicans are likely to find it makes very little political sense, either.

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