WASHINGTON - With President Clinton now widely expected to defer the key decisions on a national missile defense system to his successor, U.S. officials and outside experts say the president's plan no longer commands broad support and might be abandoned soon after he leaves office.
For more than seven years, Clinton's blueprint for building a limited, land-based missile shield has been the focus of intense planning and debate. It was the Clinton administration's carefully calibrated response to growing concern about a possible small-scale missile attack by a so-called "rogue state" such as North Korea, and the momentum behind it seemed to be building.
But in recent months, Clinton's proposal has come under blistering attack from both left and right. Advocates from both camps now say Clinton's plan is increasingly regarded as a political "orphan" that might be quickly cast aside after a new administration takes office next year.
The implications of the shift are substantial. At the least, it could delay deployment of a system beyond 2005, when U.S. officials believe North Korea might become capable of hitting the United States with a long-range missile.
And it could open the door to development of a different kind of missile shield. Possibilities include an expanded land-based system, a sea-based "boost-phase" system, or a bigger, more complex "star wars"-like system with land-, sea- and space-based components.
Administration officials say Clinton will likely offer his final word on the issue this fall, by proposing to take the first steps toward construction of his proposed system. But he will leave the pivotal deployment decisions to his successor, officials say, thus minimizing the immediate political and diplomatic fallout.
The handoff is expected to ease pressure for rapid deployment of a missile shield, some analysts predict, as the new president studies his options on an issue with enormous political and diplomatic ramifications.
Bush vs. Gore
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP nominee, has said he wants a missile shield "as soon as possible." But he also wants to research alternative technologies, including sea-based and space-based components that are not as fully developed as the components of Clinton's land-based plan.
"I want to make sure we explore all options," Bush said last week in Cleveland.
Vice President Al Gore, the expected Democratic nominee, has said that he generally favors a missile defense program, but has stopped short of offering specifics on what kind of system he would advocate.
Gore presumably would be more eager to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which bans any kind of national missile system in an effort to avoid a greater arms race.
The Clinton administration has been pressing the Russians - so far, without success - to rewrite the treaty to permit a limited missile defense system. Moscow is instead advocating development of a "boost-phase" system that would shoot down missiles shortly after they are launched, but would not affect the U.S.-Russia nuclear balance.
U.S. officials and outside analysts compare the current situation to the polarizing debate that occurred 20 years ago over plans for a new missile called the MX.
President Jimmy Carter, worried about an increasing Soviet missile threat and under pressure from the right, in 1979 ordered full-scale development of a scheme that would have involved moving U.S. missiles from place to place, making them harder to find and kill.
But two years later, incoming President Ronald Reagan, although an advocate of a forceful response, scrapped that plan and ordered new studies.
"We have seen this kind of thing before," said one defense official.
Clinton's current plan calls for an initial system of 100 interceptor missiles based in silos in Alaska.
Working with a network of radars and satellites, these missiles would be designed to knock down enemy warheads in midflight. The system could defend against as many as 20 missiles launched simultaneously by a nuclear foe.
Earlier this year, there was considerable momentum behind deployment of such a system because of increasing anxiety about the threat posed by countries such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
Two years ago, North Korea alarmed the world by unexpectedly firing a three-stage missile that, while inaccurate, suggested Pyongyang was on the way to developing a missile that could reach the United States.
Yet as the administration's self-imposed deadline for making a deployment decision drew near, arms control advocates and other critics increasingly complained that the Clinton model would fail because it could not reliably distinguish a warhead from the various decoys that the enemy might release in space to fool the interceptor.
Meanwhile, conservatives have grown more disgruntled with the Clinton blueprint because of their view that it would fail to fully protect the country at a time when, according to the Pentagon, many medium-sized "regional powers" are developing ballistic missiles.