WASHINGTON -- After launching bombshells on issues ranging from climate change to arsenic, President Bush took a different approach on missile defense.
But for all the expectation, the strong language in support of missile defense was not backed up with much detail about how to build one. Mr. Bush did not set a date for fielding a system. He did not talk about cost. And he did not describe the technologies or system design.
The reason for these big blank spots is that the Bush administration is learning, like the Clinton team before it, that deployment of a missile defense puts one in touch with some very hard realities about the threat, the technology and the impact on the United States, its allies, Russia and China.
In explaining the need to field a missile defense, Mr. Bush singled out the need to defend against the growing danger from rogue states. But the real question is whether missile defenses are the best near-term approach for countering this danger.
The president's May 1 speech seemed to stack the deck in favor of missile defense and conveniently failed to acknowledge that one of the administration's first foreign policy actions was to cut off missile negotiations with North Korea. Despite that snub, North Korea has extended a moratorium on the flight testing of its missiles. Resuming the diplomacy begun during the Clinton years is the best prospect of effective limits on Pyongyang's missile program.
President Bush is to be commended for reaching out to Moscow before his speech in a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wish to work cooperatively with Russia.
Protracted Clinton-era negotiations with Russia revealed that Moscow is deeply suspicious of the impact of a U.S. missile defense on its nuclear forces, which are Russia's main claim to global status. But the Russians have left themselves an opening for a compromise to find a way forward, including the prospect of swapping deeper reductions in offensive nuclear forces for changes to the 1972 ABM treaty.
China is the biggest question. Beijing is modernizing its small arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Will a missile defense accelerate that process, increasing the direct risks to the United States from Beijing and, possibly, touching off an arms race in Asia?
Bush missile-defense plans could also further complicate the delicate relationship between China and Taiwan. China might also seek greater cooperation with Russia on nuclear-weapons-warhead and missile designs. A Chinese build-up could have ripple effects on the latest entrants to the nuclear club, China's regional longstanding rival, India, and Pakistan.
Mr. Bush's speech also revealed that missile-defense technology remains problematic. Even the Clinton administration's limited system failed two out of three tests and was not expected to be available until mid-decade, at the earliest.
Unfortunately, the White House's desire to avoid failure is juxtaposed with recent suggestions of deploying an interim system.
The logic is clear: Even a less effective interim system would be sufficient to unsettle the calculations of potential adversaries while satisfying the pro-missile-defense constituency inside the Republican Party before Mr. Bush's term is up.
No effective national missile defense can be contemplated without agreement from Washington's allies, whose territory would hold critical parts of a system.
As the administration fills in the big holes in Mr. Bush's speech, the question will be whether the proposed cure to address missile proliferation is worse than the disease. That means developing a comprehensive approach to countering arms proliferation, which should include:
A serious attempt to negotiate changes to the ABM treaty, not a rush to abrogate it.
Re-intensified diplomacy with North Korea, close cooperation with South Korea and Japan and talks with China.
A continued search for an offense-defense tradeoff as an incentive for Russia to swallow hard and accept missile defense.
Success on the Russia track is the key to assuaging European concerns.
Lee Feinstein, a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, was deputy head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during the Clinton administration.