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GOP focus on missile defense Campaign issue: Dole hits Clinton refusal to mandate deployment in seven years.

IN A VARIATION of the "missile gap" scare that helped propel John F. Kennedy into the presidency in 1960, Republicans will launch a full-scale effort this week to make the nation's lack of a defense against nuclear attack a major issue in the 1996 election. While the "missile gap" was later exposed as a phony, the end of the Cold War has so scrambled military assumptions that no quick consensus on missile defense is likely.

If Sen. Bob Dole is elected president, Americans can expect a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon drive to deploy a national shield by 2003. That is the centerpiece of the GOP-sponsored "Defend America Act" likely to pass Congress only to encounter a White House veto that will be upheld. President Clinton contends that such a program would be premature and provocative -- a threat to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in which the superpowers chose mutual vulnerability as the best insurance for non-use of strategic missiles.

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Actually, campaign politics will etch this dispute in starker lines than it really is. A second Clinton term would be marked by a substantial increase in spending on missile defense, with the emphasis on research and development rather than a GOP-style deployment mandate.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., now winding up a distinguished career as a leading Senate expert on defense may offer a compromise. But Republicans, especially, seem more anxious to frame a campaign issue based on the theory that the nation is neglecting missile defense while relying too much on the Cold War standoff in offensive weaponry.

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This leaves the problem of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, India, Pakistan and other countries acquiring missiles? Senator Dole's purpose is to build systems that supposedly would intercept and shoot down a limited attack by a rogue power. He does not pretend this would be any defense against an all-out strategic strike or, more pertinently, a smuggled "suitcase" bomb.

While Republicans and Democrats debate the issue this year, citizens should not be lulled into thinking it is a nice, neat sound-bite question of whether or not to deploy a missile defense system. They should ask both parties how the United States and Russia, having avoided mutual destruction by stressing offense, can now turn their energies toward developing policies for the post-Cold War era.

This is not just a matter of setting up missile defenses of debatable effectiveness; it requires the establishment of an international regime (presumably with Chinese cooperation) that would ensure such retaliation that no rogue would dare to break a nuclear peace that has lasted half a century.

Pub Date: 5/13/96


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