ARGUMENTS for a limited national missile defense grow weaker; arguments against, stronger. As the debate proceeds, costs rise and benefits vanish.
Whatever the result of a test shot scheduled Friday over the Pacific, President Clinton should not begin construction of a massive radar station in the Aleutians for the program. The buck stops with the next president.
The plan is to spend $36 billion to build 100 interceptor rockets over 20 years that, guided by the new radar, would shoot down rockets of rogue states that had only a few. They would not stop states with a lot of missiles.
The system is not designed to stop a Russian or even Chinese fusillade. It is only for "rogue" states -- now "states of concern" -- that might have 30 or fewer long-range missiles by 2010. These currently are North Korea, Iraq and Iran.
The interception would take place in space -- as in this week's test -- or during descent. Many experts, including those working for Russian President Vladimir Putin, believe interception is easier at the launch or on the way up. One panel of experts says the system would be fooled by decoys; another says it would not be fooled by the rogue states' primitive decoys.
The United States could wipe out any of these states. The argument is that rogue regimes may be too irrational to be deterred by reality. That slender rationale drives the whole project.
While benefits are iffy, the costs are ominous. The program violates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. Administration lawyers argue weakly that merely breaking ground for radar at Shemya Air Base in the Aleutians would not. The Russians, who cannot believe this is not about them, say it would.
That could be used to justify their ignoring the START II agreement to reduce nuclear warheads, and derail START III negotiations for further reductions. Both have long been priorities in Washington.
Most of the 187 nations that signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty now doubt the U.S. commitment to nonproliferation. That's why most allies denounce the U.S. missile defense program.
Democratic candidate Al Gore supports the program and Republican candidate George W. Bush calls for an even stronger missile defense coupled with greater warhead reductions.
Too bad. As things stand, the program assumes both a danger and a cure by 2005 that are somewhere between hypothesis and fantasy. More likely, the program would provoke the weapons race it is intended to defend against. That makes no sense.