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We need an alternative to missile defense

By Dietrich Fischer Pacific News Service
Tuesday June 19, 2001

During his trip to Europe, President Bush faced opposition to his planned missile shield from Russia’s President Putin and from the leaders of France, Germany and the Netherlands. 

But one of the strongest arguments against NMD on record comes from Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan. Arguing in favor of “star wars,” NMD’s predecessor, Weinberger said, “Imagine how dangerous it would be if the Soviet Union got such a system first. Theycould launch their missiles without fear of retaliation.” 

The same, of course, is true in reverse. 

It is doubtful that such a system would ever work reliably, but a leader who believed — however incorrectly — that it could work would be tempted to strike first. 

That is why Russia and China have announced they would have no choice but to increase their nuclear arsenals sufficiently to convince any potential opponent that they could penetrate any possible defense system. 

In other words, if the United States embarks on a plan to build a national missile defense system, a new nuclear arms race would begin. 

Since NMD would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, it could unravel the whole process of arms control. 

The principal beneficiaries — and supporters — of NMD are U.S. defense contractors, who hope to make an estimated $60 to $100 billion at taxpayers’ expense. 

If the nuclear powers break their commitment under the ABM treaty to eliminate all nuclear weapons, other states will be encouraged to obtain their own nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan justified their nuclear weapons programs by rejecting the monopoly of the established nuclear weapons powers. 

And if nuclear weapons proliferate, it is only a matter of time until “countries of concern” (formerly called rogue nations) and terrorist groups acquire some. 

NMD offers no protection against this, even if it worked perfectly, because it cannot intercept bombs delivered in a suitcase, on a truck, or sailboat. 

What we need is not a new defense system, but a more open world in which nuclear weapons can be effectively banned — as we have already concluded treaties banning biological and chemical weapons, with intrusive verification. 

The treaty with North Korea negotiated during the Clinton administration, which allows the United States to verify that North Korea has abandoned its nuclear weapons and long range missile programs in return for two nuclear power plants unable to generate nuclear weapons fuel, is a good example of what we need. 

Thorough inspections are needed to prevent nuclear proliferation, and if we wish to inspect other countries, we must be willing to open our country to such inspections as well. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can now inspect only sites that member countries voluntarily place under its supervision. This would be like a suspected drug smuggler telling a border guard, “You may check my trunk, but don't open the glove compartment.” 

The IAEA must have the power to inspect any suspected nuclear facilities without advance warning, even in non-member countries, if we are to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.Many governments today object to such intrusive inspections as a “violation of their national sovereignty.” (President Bush has opposed stringent verification provisions of the biological weapons treaty.) 

Many airline passengers also protested against having their luggage searched for guns or explosives, when that policy was first introduced after a series of fatal hijackings. But most have come to realize that such inspections enhance their own security. Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. 

Sooner or later, governments will reach the same conclusion. The question is only whether this will happen before or after the first terrorist nuclear bomb explodes. 

“National sovereignty” is a false issue here, since no country today has sovereign control over the world’s nuclear arsenals. Giving the IAEA effective authority to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, does not mean giving up any control over our lives. Rather, it gives us additional control — more than we could ever achieve at the national level. 

Ultimately, we must destroy all nuclear weapons. Some have argued that we cannot “disinvent” nuclear weapons and will have to live with them as long as civilization exists. But nobody disinvented cannibalism — we simply abhor it. Can’t we learn to abhor equally the thought of incinerating entire cities with nuclear weapons? 

PNS commentator Dietrich Fischer, a professor at Pace University, New York, is co-director of TRANSCEND, a peace and development network.