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Many problems with NMD


ATLANTA -- Let me see if I've got this straight: The missile defense system we needed because of the Cold War, but didn't get in time, we need now because there isn't a Cold War.

If this somehow seems puzzling, remember it is brought to you by the man who, as a candidate for the presidency, said we needed an outsized tax cut because the economy was humming, but now as president says we need it because the economy is wan.

There is, as you can see, a consistency here. This is the logic of Alice's Wonderland, where matters are as they are because it is said that they are. So there.

Actually, for all of the hullabaloo around President Bush's much-trumpeted speech declaring the national missile defense (NMD) a thing of the future and the bothersome Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty a thing of the past, there is less afoot here in the short run than meets the rhetoric.

What Mr. Bush didn't do is as important as what he did.

He didn't unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty, only told our allies and Russia that he will if he feels like it. He didn't outline what his NMD will be, because he doesn't have one. And he didn't ask Congress to fund the project flat-out, because, at this point anyway, it wouldn't.

What we have then is a bold declaration of intent, a gauntlet thrown down as much for show as for action. That, alone, will be disturbing enough.

The ABM treaty has been the linchpin of the nuclear standoff that has passed for stability between the United States and Soviet Union/Russia since 1972 and that has permitted smaller nuclear states to settle for lesser capacities than they otherwise might feel obliged to field.

Its removal might rev up Russia's program. It would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. China surely would feel it necessary to challenge any limited American shield -- and Mr. Bush anticipates nothing more -- by increased numbers of missiles. The small nuclear powers -- India, Pakistan -- would see not just a superpower America but the likelihood of a bully America and would act accordingly.

All of this for a system that has so far flunked every test. The administration has an answer for that, too.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said no system is likely to be 100 per cent perfect but, get this, it doesn't need to be. The fear among predator states that it might work would be deterrent enough. But we're already prepared to incinerate any nation that lobs a nuke at us, which in effect is what Mr. Rumsfeld is saying would still be the case after we spend another $100 billion. (If we're lucky. Double that is more like it.)

There is an excellent case for continuing a reasonable level of missile-defense research and development and for accompanying that with a sustained, thoughtful conversation with Russia and our allies about the potential political shape of an evolving 21st-century defense, especially one -- as the president handsomely imagined -- that would increase not just American but global security.

The Pentagon, of course, wants NMD, our ideological right loves the macho of it and the likely contractors are salivating, but there are strong reasons for not hot-dogging this unproved, enormously costly and politically rash adventure.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is

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