WASHINGTON -- By the logic of some commentators hostile to President Bush's determination to deploy defenses against ballistic missiles, the government should stop trying to develop an AIDS vaccine. Attempts to produce a vaccine have encountered failures and have not yet produced a product that works "perfectly" or "fully."
The day Mr. Bush announced -- reiterated, really -- his commitment to missile defense, ABC News said: "He wants to spend a vast amount of money, and it doesn't matter if the system doesn't work perfectly." An ABC correspondent said critics accuse Mr. Bush of proposing something that would "scare" potential enemies even if it does not "fully work." But what do such people mean by the verb "work"?
Critics announcing their thumping certitudes about military possibilities should be chastened by the history of false prognostications, from "the bomber will always get through" to the asserted impossibility of ballistic missiles traveling intercontinental distances. As to whether missile defenses can work "perfectly" or "fully," have you ever owned a car that worked "perfectly"? What would it mean to say that that any complex system -- a bomber, a tank, a destroyer -- "fully works"? Weapons have varying degrees of usefulness in various contexts.
During the Cold War, Gov. Mario Cuomo accused President Ronald Reagan of building missiles "we can't even afford to use." Well, yes. Avoiding what Mr. Cuomo thought of as the "use" of the missiles -- launching them -- was the point of deterrence constructed around sea- and land-based ballistic missiles. The missiles were being used just by being there, complicating, to the point of paralysis, the calculations of any potential aggressor. Even less-than-perfect missile defenses can serve the same function.
Mr. Reagan deserves accolades for reviving missile defense as a strategic aspiration, and for presenting it as a moral imperative: It is not just imprudent, it is unworthy of America to base its defense on mutual assured destruction, a military policy condemned for 1,000 years, that of holding civilian populations hostage. But debate about missile defense still is bedeviled by Mr. Reagan's improvident talk about an impermeable shield. Such talk enables critics to argue that any defense screen less than impermeable -- and any shield can be penetrated by a sufficient multiplication of offensive systems -- is useless.
The immediate use for missile defenses would be to prevent a rogue nation from using a small missile force to deter the United States from acting against that nation's regional aggression.
If in 1990 Saddam Hussein had possessed a few nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of striking European capitals, the task of assembling the Desert Shield coalition would have been much more difficult. And even a nation with a more-than-minimal missile force would find that even a less than perfect U.S. shield would complicate an aggressor's ability to make a credible threat.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, says Mr. Bush's proposal could irritate Russia enough to "risk a second Cold War." Evidently, he thinks Russia will respond to U.S. defenses by multiplying its ICBMs. But even if Russia could afford to, which it cannot, Russia is not an enemy.
Anyway, does Mr. Levin think U.S. precautions in the face of various emerging threats (from North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq) should be controlled by the sensibilities of a fading Russia?
If Russia's high mortality rate and low fertility rate continue, by mid-century its population, currently 146 million, will have declined by 30 percent, and will be smaller than the populations of Iran or Vietnam. Russia is becoming a Third World country with a hunter-gatherer economy.
In the words of Jeffrey Tayler, in the Atlantic Monthly ("Russia Is Finished"), Russia is becoming "Zaire with permafrost." It is "following the path of Mobutu's Zaire, becoming a sparsely populated yet gigantic land of natural resources exploited by an authoritarian elite as the citizenry sinks into poverty, disease and despair."
Russia's economy, which is now about the size of the Netherlands', is negligibly based on manufacturing products competitive in world markets. It is based on extraction industries -- oil, gas, minerals. Oil alone provides one-third of state revenues. The military is impoverished, with officers' salaries, adjusted for inflation, having fallen 50 percent in five years.
Opponents of missile defense are going to need arguments better than "it won't (fully, perfectly) work" or that this technologically sophisticated undertaking will re-ignite the rivalry with a Russian military that cannot pay its officers or cope with Chechens primarily using only weapons they can carry.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.