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The Paradox of Missile Defense
by James Carroll

Published 6 June 2007

One man picked up a club, and the other answered with
a stone. A knife was parried with a sword. The shield
followed, then the spear, the mace, the longbow, the
fortified wall, the catapult, the castle, the cannon.
Across eons, every warrior’s improvement in defense
was followed by a breakthrough in offense, leading to
yet new countermeasures, ever more lethal. This
ancient offense-defense cycle was made modern by the
machine gun and the tank, then by warplanes and anti
aircraft guns, and, ultimately, by ballistic missiles
and anti ballistic missiles.

In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara analyzed
the structure of this dynamic to argue for a halt to
it. “Were we to deploy a heavy ABM system . . . the
Soviets would clearly be strongly motivated so to
increase their offensive capability as to cancel out
our defense advantage.” Not only would the mutual
escalation, launched in the name of defense, be futile
and wasteful, but it would make war more likely rather
than less. At the end of his Pentagon tenure, McNamara
had arrived at the central paradox of the nuclear age: how defense and offense had taken on opposite
meanings, with the former having become the inevitable
precursor of the latter. In opposing the deployment of
the ABM, the American defense chief was breaking with
the oldest pattern of human belligerence.

This counter intuitive repudiation of defense was soon
embraced across the right-left political divide, with
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger becoming its
champions. The idea, enshrined in the 1972 treaty
according to which Moscow and Washington jointly
foreswore the anti ballistic missile, was arguably the
most important intellectual achievement of the Cold
War. Defense could no longer be simplistically defined
as moral, with offense as immoral, because the two
were halves of the same nut. At last, it was
understood that the only way out of the endless cycle
of arms escalation was the renunciation of the whole
of it. The ABM treaty was thus the ground of
subsequent arms limitation, and then arms reduction,
leading to nothing less than the non violent
resolution of the nuclear stand off.

When George W. Bush came into office as president, he
quickly denounced the ABM Treaty as a “relic” of the
Cold War. (In doing this, he was largely dependent on
the analysis of Paul D. Wolfowitz, whose public career
began on the staff of the Committee to Maintain a
Prudent Defense Policy, which was formed to oppose the
ABM Treaty.) Because the United States was forbidden
by the 1972 treaty to go forward with a Missile
Defense System, Bush unilaterally “abrogated” the
agreement in 2002. Not only did this action destroy
the arms reduction process (immediately killing START
II), it made inevitable the next round of arms
escalation. Missile defense began as Ronald Reagan’s
Star Wars fantasy, but in Reagan’s vision it was to be
paired with steady progress toward nuclear abolition,
an element that Bush simply dropped.

The actual deployment of US missile defense is well
underway - a first shoe dropping. But the Bush system
involves the added provocation that Poland and the
Czech Republic are sites of some key components,
confirming Moscow’s fears that the United States,
putatively targeting a “rogue” state like Iran, is
actually aiming at Russia. The Kremlin reacted exactly
as McNamara had predicted it would 40 years ago, and
last week the second shoe dropped. “Russia tests
missile to pierce US shield,” a headline in the
International Herald Tribune read, announcing an
offensive breakthrough. On May 29, Moscow’s new
missile flew, and it was a success. Multiple warheads
will so enhance a new generation of long-range Russian
missiles “as to cancel out,” in McNamara’s phrase, any
imagined defensive advantage of America’s shield.

Two days after the Russian test, Vladimir Putin said
simply, “It wasn’t us who initiated a new round of the
arms race.”

Of all the problems that are exacerbating US-Russian
tensions today, none compares for destructiveness with
Bush’s misguided missile defense project. The irony,
of course, is that this reigniting of the old tensions
in the name of security leads to less security, not
more. The tragedy is that it ignores the lesson that
had already been so well learned four decades ago.

A consensus has lately developed that the Bush
administration’s worst legacy will be tied to the
disastrous war in Iraq, but that may be wrong. The
resuscitation of the fantasy of missile defense, and
with it the raising from the dead of the arms race,
may result in catastrophes in comparison to which Iraq
is benign.

Published on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 by The Boston Globe

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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