PRESIDENT CLINTON did right in postponing a decision on deployment of the limited nuclear missile defense until the next presidency.
To have pressed past the point of no return now would have been somewhere between folly and disaster. The arguments against are growing while those supporting the proposal are tentative at best.
The Pentagon is reported to be postponing its next test of feasibility until January for technical reasons, two out of three tests having failed. The Navy has an alternative idea of how to do it.
To start building a radar station in the Aleutians for deployment would break the antiballistic missile treaty with Russia on which nuclear stability rests, provoke China and alienate allies for a defense that so far does not work against a danger that has receded.
The decision on whether to deploy or not is best left to the next president and Congress, after more tests. Both Al Gore and George Bush have endorsed the missile shield, Mr. Bush more enthusiastically. Each should have the wit not to box himself in. The next president should start with all options open. He will have himself to blame if they are not.
The national missile defense at issue is designed to shoot down nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles in space, but only those of smallish countries that now lack that capability. The United States could wipe them out. The theory is that mad rulers of rogue states are too irrational to be deterred by threat of massive retaliation.
One trouble with this is that the prime candidate for this profile, Kim Jong Il of North Korea, has launched peaceful probes of the outside world's intentions suggesting a verifiable moratorium on missile development as a bargaining chip. To spurn that for something that costs $60 billion to start and might not even work would be risky defense, dangerous diplomacy and wacky budgeting.
Limited national missile defense is promised to be too little to stop a fusillade from countries now or soon capable of it, namely Russia and China. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is the doctrine of stability inherited from the Cold War.
The catch is that these two governments don't admit to believing that the missile defense would be all that limited. They say they would be provoked to develop more missiles, though Moscow has been incapable of maintaining what it has.
Any rational decision on national missile defense based on present information would be to abort it. An alternative, which President Clinton adopted, is to postpone the decision until more information is had in a calmer atmosphere.
Meanwhile, research on defense against theater missiles should go ahead, as should development of mobile small forces to deal with the real problems posed by rogue states. It would be extreme folly to allow fantasy games to weaken the real defenses of the United States.