WASHINGTON - Bowing to political and technological reality, President Clinton announced yesterday that he'll hold back on ordering deployment of an expensive, Alaska-based national missile defense and instead will let the next president decide whether to build the shield.
"I simply cannot conclude, with the information that I have today, that we have enough confidence in the technology," Clinton said.
"Because the emerging missile threat is real, we have an obligation to pursue a missile defense system that could enhance our security. ... But we should not move forward until we have absolute confidence that the system will work."
The president's decision comes after the failure of a missile-intercept prototype in two out of three test launches over the past year.
In the most recent test, in July, the "kill vehicle" that was supposed to hit and destroy a fake warhead in space never separated from its booster rocket.
Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush immediately criticized the decision, saying it shows that the Clinton-Gore administration "failed to strengthen America's defenses," and he promised "to develop and deploy an effective missile defense system at the earliest possible date."
Vice President Al Gore backed Clinton's call, citing "the real possibility that countries such as North Korea or Iran will succeed in acquiring weapons of mass destruction" but welcoming "the opportunity to be more certain that these technologies actually work together properly."
Given the July test failure, few independent defense specialists were surprised by Clinton's decision.
"The president really didn't have a choice," said Lawrence Korb, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
"Nobody can blame him for not deploying a system that doesn't work."
Technical challenges weren't the only factors pushing Clinton toward the no-go call, however.
The president had sought to build an international consensus for deployment of a missile defense since 1999, a year after a blue-ribbon congressional panel reported that missile threats were increasing from North Korea, Iran and other nonaligned states.
But his administration never found the hoped-for support.
Doubts on both sides
Many Republicans believe the 100-missile system that is under consideration is woefully inadequate. They want to add many more missile interceptors to the land-based system and perhaps include a sea-based and space-based component.
Dovish Democrats fear that any anti-missile system could disturb the global nuclear balance and generate a new arms race. European allies worry that the United States would shield itself while leaving them vulnerable.
Meantime, Russian President Vladimir P. Putin rejected Clinton's request to amend the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972 and prohibits such national missile shields as the one considered for Alaska.
"Nothing has been working on this program," said Joseph Cirincione, an arms proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The technology has been failing. The costs have been increasing. The diplomacy hasn't been working. Even the threat hasn't been cooperating. North Korea has been talking peace, not war."
North Korea, whose test missile launch over the Sea of Japan in 1998 helped galvanize support for a U.S. missile defense, has vowed to observe an indefinite launch moratorium.
And it has made extraordinary, and surprising, gestures toward building relations with South Korea, including a summit between the nation's leaders in June.
Other developing nations, including Iran and Iraq, are thought to be potential threats for launching missiles at the United States, but their capabilities are deemed to be behind North Korea's.
Even so, administration officials have recently focused on a new type of danger, little mentioned before: the possibility that an established nuclear power such as Russia or Pakistan could collapse politically, thus providing nuclear arms to terrorists or other extremists.
"There is an emerging threat. We have to take it seriously," said White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.
"We believe that the problems encountered in the two most recent tests ... presumably can be corrected, but more time is needed."
Clinton had promised to make a decision on whether to proceed with a missile defense system by the end of the summer.
U.S. intelligence data had led some analysts to conclude that North Korea could reach the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles as early as 2005. To retain any chance of stationing interceptor missiles by that date, Pentagon officials had calculated they would need to award contracts beginning this fall for a radar system on Shemya island in Alaska.
Vulnerability is denied
Yesterday, Berger denied that the decision to delay construction would leave the United States vulnerable after 2005 and maintained that nobody in the administration had ever seen a North Korean missile threat emerging by that date.
But Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has repeatedly warned of such a risk. In July, he said on CNN: "I believe that by the year 2005 a threat will be present that could threaten the security of the United States."
Cohen delayed his expected August recommendation to Clinton on whether to build a missile defense system and said he would instead reach a decision this month.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to reveal what Cohen said to the president, saying only that in recent days they had several face-to-face meetings and phone conversations.
The defense secretary released a statement saying that it was "central" to not only build a national consensus on the need for a national missile defense system but also to reach agreement on how extensive that system should be.
Berger said the United States' offensive nuclear capability will continue to deter attacks. In any event, he added, Clinton's decision would not affect the timetable for eventual deployment of a missile defense.
Because of the recent technical problems, it would be six or seven years, at the earliest, before the system could be put into operation, he said.
Republicans and Democrats reacted predictably to the announcement.
"We need not reject for all time the idea of a national missile defense," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The president's decision gives us time to perfect our political approach to the ballistic missile threat as well as our technology."
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of the most ardent congressional proponents of missile defense, said, "Clinton has never been for missile defense."