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BUSH TALKS MISSILE DEFENSE



Published: Wed, May 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: How about that? President Bush told the world last week that he wants to set America on a course to build a ballistic missile defense. And the sky didn't fall.

It's fair to say Bush's goal of an air-land-and-sea missile defense system faces many hurdles. But the rhetoric from the president and the response from other nations suggested this just might be accomplished with cooperation, rather than confrontation.

Bush wants a shield to defend the U.S. against a possible attack by a rogue state. He has declared that it is his top national security priority. What was encouraging in Bush's formal announcement at National Defense University, however, was his pledge to explore all options, to explain them carefully to skeptical allies, and to consult with potential foes like Russia and China.

Two critical elements that Bush included in his announcement deserve encouragement.

First is his determination to combine a missile defense with deep cuts in strategic nuclear weapons -- to "the lowest possible number ... consistent with our national security needs," he said. If he follows through, that should bolster his argument to Russia and China -- who have warned a U.S. missile shield could spark a new arms race -- that the United States wants to protect itself from rogue nations, not threaten them or neutralize their nuclear arsenals.

Diplomatic ramifications: Second, Bush seemed to recognize that there would be deep diplomatic ramifications to unilaterally scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The treaty prohibits some of the testing Bush intends to pursue on sea-, air- and space-based missile defense systems. It has, though, been the cornerstone of arms control agreements for nearly 30 years.

Bush called for replacing the treaty "with a new framework that reflects a clear and clean break from the past."

Russia seemed to agree, at least partly. Moscow's reaction to Bush's speech was to move from bluster and condemnation of a missile shield to welcoming the call for strategic dialogue and a common approach to new missile threats. Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled Thursday a willingness to work together with the United States to reduce strategic nuclear arms.

There are questions as to whether the missile defense system is technologically feasible. There will be a debate over the cost of a missile shield, which could range from $60 billion to $100 billion for the system Bush contemplates.

So, talk. A balance of nuclear terror protected the world during the Cold War. Now's the time for a debate on what comes next. Bush's address, and the world's response, were a carefully crafted and credible start.




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