Nonsense About Missile Defense

Thomas L. Friedman The New York Times
International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON The Bush team's explanation for why America has to build a national missile defense shield gets more interesting by the week.
President George W. Bush argued in a speech that a missile shield was necessary because classic deterrence - anyone who fires a missile at the United States will be destroyed by return mail - cannot deter crazy rogue states like Iraq, North Korea or Iran.
Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained that even if the missile shield that the Bush team proposes spending billions to build does not work perfectly, it will still be worth deploying. Potential enemies will still be deterred because they will never know for sure whether the missile they fire will be able to get through the imperfect shields or not. "They need not be 100 percent perfect," to have a deterrent effect on future adversaries, said Mr. Rumsfeld. This has been called the "scarecrow" defense.
I get it! The Bush Doctrine says rogue states are so crazy that they would launch a missile even knowing that it would mean their certain destruction in return. But if you build a scarecrow missile shield that doesn't fully work, these rogue states are so rational that they would never launch one of their missiles against it, because they would realize that there was a chance it might not penetrate.
In short, America's perfect missiles that will destroy any rogue state with 100 percent accuracy won't deter them, but its imperfect missile shield, which may have as many holes as a Swiss cheese, will deter them. In fact, it is absurd that a system that has kept the peace for 50 years - classic deterrence, reinforced by arms control - is so hated by the Republican right. The notion that rogue leaders are so crazy that they cannot be deterred is itself crazy. Do you think Kim Jong II, Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein or the Iranian mullahs have managed to stay in power as long as they have by behaving like suicidal fanatics? .I don't think so. They use terrorists, secret agents and third parties to hit the United States indirectly in its weakest spots, like an American bar in Berlin or a little U.S. embassy in Africa. And they always operate in ways that make it very difficult to trace back to them. Because they are anything but crazy. They want their regimes to survive.
If they are so crazy and hell-bent on attacking America, why aren't they doing it now, when there is no missile shield, and all they have to do is drive a truck bomb across the Mexican border or release a bio-weapon in Washington? What deters them today is what will always deter them - the certainty that if they attack with weapons of mass destruction their regimes will be destroyed.
In other words, what is protecting America right now from the most likely rogue threat, which is not a missile but a car bomb or a bio-weapon, is classic deterrence. What a $100 billion missile shield offers is protection from the least likely threat. "If we really thought there was an imminent threat of missile attack from one of these rogues," notes Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert, "we would not wait to be attacked. We would not wait to see if our missile shield actually worked. We would preempt. In other words, in precisely the circumstance in which the advocates say a missile shield is needed, any rational president would act as if we didn't have one." .There are circumstances in which deploying missile defense could make sense - if you had a system that actually worked, particularly theater missile defenses; if it were backed by allies, as well as by the Russians and Chinese, so they wouldn't sell more missiles to rogues and increase the threats; and if it were not so expensive as to undercut other defense programs that do work.