More pins prick Bush's missile defense

Wariness in Moscow and European capitals increases, and Senate Democrats signal no need to race ahead.

Four months after taking office, Bush officials have found it far more difficult than they had anticipated to generate foreign enthusiasm for one of their top geopolitical priorities - missile defense.

If anything, wariness about the costs and arms-control side effects of new missile-defense systems has increased in Moscow and allied European capitals in recent weeks, despite the dozens of meetings and thousands of frequent-flier miles racked up by US envoys.

Things aren't going much better back in Washington, defensively speaking. Newly empowered Senate Democrats are signaling that they see no need to race ahead and begin to deploy systems before the end of President Bush's current term.

The bottom line: The Bush team's early insistence that it would erect a missile shield whether other nations approved or not appears to be increasingly in question.

"There was this brief window the administration had when they had successfully convinced the world that missile defense was inevitable," says Joseph Cirincione, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "That bubble appears to have burst."

The sharpest and most recent pin to prick the administration's dreams of defense was wielded by NATO allies at a meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Budapest, Hungary, last week.

Resistance to several US positions

Despite intensive diplomacy, Secretary of State Colin Powell failed to win allied endorsement of a common intention to move away from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and toward a strategy based on missile-defense systems. Allies refused to join the US in saying that missiles fired by rogue states or by accident from big powers are currently a worldwide threat.

Secretary Powell was sanguine about the setback, saying that eventually allies would realize that the threat from Iraq, North Korea, and others is immediate and clear. "It will take us time to persuade everybody of that proposition, but I'm sure we will be successful at the end of the day," he said.

Others were not so sure. The administration has been lobbying its friends on missile defense virtually without ceasing for months, they point out. Mr. Bush himself has buttonholed every NATO visitor to the Oval Office on the subject, and he outlined his vision for a new world of defense-based deterrence in a lengthy May 1 speech.

"Yet at their first opportunity in a public forum, the allies essentially rejected the Bush administration approach," says Stephen Young, senior analyst in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

To some extent, NATO's less-than-warm reception was a comment on the state of US-Russia dialogue as much as a judgment on the abstract appeal of the missile-defense concept.

If Moscow would agree with Washington to move away from ABM pact limits and toward some sort of brave new defense world, Europe would undoubtedly salute and follow along, note analysts.

Toward that end, the administration has been trying to figure out what combination of the geopolitical equivalent of jewelry and flowers might persuade Russia to follow the US lead.

Bush has already indicated that the US is willing to move toward much smaller nuclear arsenals - something Moscow has long pushed for - in a defense-dominated world. The administration is also reportedly considering an offer of aid, joint exercises, and arms purchases to try to get Russia to agree to scrap the ABM pact.

The problem is, Russia has already publicly rejected this package, even before Bush has a chance to proffer it at his June 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia.

"If such proposals come - we have not yet received them - I am sure they will not solve the ABM issue," said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov last week.

Window of opportunity still open

Yet behind this rhetoric may still be opportunity for the Bush administration, say some experts. A deal with Moscow is far from impossible, they say.

Ironically, the Democratic takeover of the Senate might make such a bargain somewhat more likely. With pro-ABM Treaty Democrats holding at least one of the nation's purse strings, Moscow can rest assured that for the moment it is next to impossible for Bush to press ahead with unilateral missile-defense deployment.

Russia's central concern is that any defenses be limited enough in scope to ensure that its own offensive nuclear weapons are not rendered impotent. Whether that requires a new treaty structure to replace the ABM pact, or revisions to ABM, or some sort of handshake agreement, remains to be seen, says Mr. Cirincione of Carnegie.

In any case, the administration will likely have to start filling in the blanks of its still-undefined plan before Russia begins sounding more interested, he says.

"There's a deal there that can be struck," says Cirincione, "but it's not going to be easy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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