One of the most important military decisions in years awaits America's next president: whether the Pentagon should push forward with a national missile defense.
His decision, perhaps more than any other defense issue, will dictate the new president's stances toward foreign policy, national security, and arms control.
Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and Vice President Al Gore (D), their parties' likely nominees, see advantages in building a missile-defense system to protect the United States from attack by a rogue nation. Their differences seem to be a matter of degree, with Mr. Gore adopting a go-slow approach and Mr. Bush saying he'd proceed with not one, but two, missile-defense systems "at the earliest possible date."
The implications of building a national missile defense (NMD), the descendent of the Reagan-era "star wars," are significant. To deploy the system, the US would have to drastically amend, or even scrap, the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, considered a cornerstone in modern arms control.
Other differences in defense policy divide the two likely presidential candidates. They disagree, for example, over how big a boost to give military spending and how quick the US should be to intervene in conflicts abroad.
Yet their positions on NMD may speak loudest about how each sees America's role in the world and its stature vis--vis other nations.
That Bush-Gore difference
Gore approaches missile defense the same way President Clinton has - with a degree of caution and a desire to gain international approval before moving forward, his aides say.
Mr. Clinton, in fact, can make a decision this summer on whether to commit to such missile defenses, a technology so challenging that it is akin to trying to hit one speeding bullet with another. But given recent questions about technological feasibility and Russia's reluctance to revise the ABM treaty, it appears increasingly likely that he will leave the decision to the next administration.
"I think a consensus is being formed that a decision is farther off than [this summer]," says an administration official.
Bush, on the other hand, has indicated he wants to go ahead with two kinds of missile-defense systems - one for the entire US and another "theater" missile defense that can protect troops or allies abroad.
He has implied he would do so even if Russia continues its opposition to rewriting the ABM treaty, which was designed to prevent national missile defenses.
"If Russia refuses the changes we propose, we will give prompt notice, under the provisions of the treaty, that we can no longer be a party to it," Bush said in a Sept. 23, 1999, speech outlining his defense platform.
Breaking the ABM treaty and building a US missile defense could have a strong impact on the rest of the world. China would likely react by building more long-range missiles, analysts say, so that it would have the ability to overwhelm the system and maintain its deterrence against the US.
America's European allies also object to a missile defense because they believe the US and Europe should share the same level of vulnerability. The Europeans are worried, too, that they could become a proxy target of North Korea, Iran, or another rogue nation.
Many Republicans, however, argue that the 1972 treaty is outdated - and signed by a country that no longer exists, the Soviet Union. Also, they say, the risk of attack by a rogue state has never been greater - and the technology to make long-range missiles, possibly with nuclear warheads, has never been more accessible.
The Democrats are in a particularly difficult position. While many do not want to invest heavily in an untested technology that will upset China and Russia, it is hard for them to turn away from such a tantalizing possibility. Gore is considered a strong supporter of arms-control agreements like the ABM treaty. He has also worked closely on relations with Russia.
"Democrats are scared on this issue," says Patrick Cronin, a national-security specialist at the US Institute for Peace in Washington. "They want to kick it down the road."
The two candidates disagree on other defense issues, but less pointedly. Both support higher defense spending. But Bush favors a bigger budget than the $278 billion Clinton requested this year.
Bush has also said he does not want America involved in as many open-ended peacekeeping missions as it now is. Pentagon officials say operations like Bosnia and Kosovo have overextended the military and hurt troop preparedness. "I will order an immediate review of our overseas deployments - in dozens of countries," Bush said.
Gore, however, would be more likely to order an intervention or peacekeeping mission in the name of humanitarian suffering, one of his aides says.
No matter what his election-year positions, the next commander in chief will face one overriding military reality: a major Pentagon budget deficit. With several new and expensive weapons systems in the works, including the F-22 fighter jet, the Pentagon deficit could be as much as $20 billion in coming years.
And, says Peter Huessy, a senior associate at the National Defense University Foundation, it would be foolish to try to hide from the inevitable. "If we modernize faster, it will be cheaper in the long run," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society