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Weighing the costs



Published: Wed, July 18, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The value of a missile defense system to the United States is a matter of debate, but some sort of system appears to be inevitable. Even under the Clinton administration, the Pentagon continued to work on missile defense and had plans for a system based in Alaska.

The question is not should we have missile defense, but of what kind and at what cost.

Different costs: And when we talk about costs, we're not only discussing the billions of dollars that are involved. The Bush administration has asked for $8.3 billion in 2002, which is almost a 60 percent increase over what was allocated for 2001.

That's a lot of money, to be sure, but there are even greater possible costs if the United States forges ahead with development in total disregard of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972.

Last week, Pentagon officials testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee said they intend to accelerate work on missile defense even if it means withdrawing from the 1972 treaty.

The cost of such an action would be enormous.

The United States would send a message that the rest of the world would interpret as purely arrogant. It would suffer a loss of prestige among allies and foes alike. No one likes a bully.

But more than prestige is involved. If the United State breaks or withdraws from the treaty, Russia and China would be certain to respond.

Those two countries have just signed a new treaty of "Good Neighborly and Friendly Cooperation," and given the proper incentive, Russia and China could build on that treaty in ways that would not bode well for the United States.

China now does about $120 billion a year in lopsided trade with the United States. It spends about $10 billion of those dollars buying sophisticated weapons from Russia.

Just how much incentive does the United States want to give China and Russia to exchange even more billions of the dollars we're providing on weapons that could one day be aimed at us?

Rogue issue: The Bush administration says the United States needs a missile defense system to protect it from "rogue states" like North Korea or Iraq. But a rogue would probably deliver a nuclear weapon in a way that would make its source difficult to identify. Terrorist states have sabotaged American airliners or bombed American targets at home and abroad with anonymity because it makes it impossible for the United States to retaliate.

Russia and China would interpret breaking the ABM treaty as an action against them, not rogues. It would be the shot that restarts the arms race.

We won the last arms race, by, the theory goes, forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into ruin. This time the other guys would be spending our money. In the long run, who might win that race?




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