Bush's Anti-Logic Shield

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
May 2 2001 11:30 PM

Bush's Anti-Logic Shield

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Building the ambitious missile-defense system outlined yesterday by President Bush would mean abandoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but that has never much bothered the Bush administration. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld puts it, "The Soviet Union, our partner in that treaty, doesn't exist anymore."

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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One thing Rumsfeld doesn't bother to add is that when the Soviet Union died, its successor states—most notably Russia—agreed to inherit its treaty commitments. Another thing he doesn't add is that they did so at the insistence of the United States.

In fact, they did so at the insistence of a president named Bush. I guess American officials forgot to tell the Russians that, though the Soviet Union's offspring would be expected to keep treaty commitments, Bush's offspring wouldn't be.

I don't want to make too much of this. After all, George W. Bush now seems to be suggesting not unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty but a negotiated withdrawal—forging a new "cooperative relationship" with Russia. And I guess there's a chance that he means this more sincerely than he meant his pledge to forge a new cooperative relationship with Democrats.

Besides, the main problem with missile defense isn't the legal niceties. The problem is that it lies somewhere on the spectrum from useless to counterproductive. That is, it would either not affect the chances of my dying prematurely or increase them. I don't consider either of these outcomes worth the price tag—which, realistically, is somewhere between $60 billion and $1 trillion.

Exactly how effectively a missile-defense system would fend off missiles is open to debate, but one thing it has already proved its imperviousness to is logic. Bush yesterday trotted out a series of bullet-ridden rationales and held them up proudly, as if oblivious (which he probably is) to the withering criticism they've already been through. For example:

Barbarians at the gate: The basic rationale for missile defense has long been that people like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il are savages not subject to the deterrent logic of mutually assured destruction. These men, Bush said, are "gripped by an implacable hatred of the United States of America. They hate our friends. They hate our values. … Many care little for the lives of their own people. In such a world, Cold War deterrence is no longer enough."

But of course, Cold War deterrence was never premised on enemy leaders sharing our values, liking us, or even caring whether their own people died. As I've noted before in this space, deterrence assumes only that enemy leaders don't want to die themselves. If Bush thinks Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il don't care about their own survival he should say so, but so far the evidence suggests pretty strongly that these guys are survivors. Of particular relevance: During the Persian Gulf War, after Secretary of State James Baker made a veiled threat to respond with nuclear force to the use of chemical weapons, Hussein kept his ample supply of chemical weapons sheathed.

Nuclear blackmail: In light of this Persian Gulf episode, it's ironic that Bush yesterday cited the war with Iraq as an argument for missile defense: The alliance that rolled back Iraqi aggression "would have faced a very different situation had Hussein been able to blackmail with nuclear weapons."

Of course, it's possible that, even though Hussein would have been bluffing, the bluff would have worked. If enough European and American citizens decided there was at least a tiny chance he'd deliver on his threat, their fear might have proved politically paralyzing. But if a tiny chance of successful nuclear attack is paralyzing, then missile defense isn't going to help. After all, not even supporters of missile defense think it will be 100-percent effective, and most observers think its success rate would be much lower. And, as an extremely perceptive critic of missile defense once wrote, "In the psychology of paralyzing fear, a small but appreciable threat of massive destruction is a small but appreciable threat of massive destruction. If our allies are worried that there's a 5 percent chance of London or Paris going up in flames, it won't help to say, 'Actually the threat is only 2 percent.' " Or 1 percent, or one-half of 1 percent.

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