Saturday, May 03, 2008


In spite of being technically infeasible and politically misguided, why have successive US administrations been so besotted by missile defense, with George Bush's latest generous act being to essentially strong-arm NATO into agreeing to his demands for installing such defense systems in Eastern Europe, clearly an act that is if anything going to instigate even more antagonism against America?

Lawrence Korb writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nails down the phenomenon- Republicans have been having a love affair with missile defense since their patron saint Ronald Reagan embraced the ideal in the pseudo-delusional confines of his idealistic mind. In fact so did Reagan believe in this coveted ideal that he even went to the length of offering to share this technology with the Soviets. In his belief in missile defense Reagan displayed the classic qualities of delusional religious thinking- thinking that something that isn't actually there is going to save us all. In spite of there being not a shred of serious scientific evidence that any such system could work in practice nor a demonstrated need for it, Reagan made up his mind that it was necessary and would work splendidly. He, Ronald Reagan, would then be known as the great prophet of peace. Through his fantasizing Reagan bequeathed an ignominious legacy to his Republican successors. Now in his rebirth as George Bush, Reagan has returned with a vengeance. He still haunts the deep recesses of space, looking for sites to install x-ray lasers, perhaps telling jokes to the little angels gently guiding CIA spy satellites.

As Korb notes, at least some Republicans may have trouble supporting some of the sacred pillars of the party for fear of losing votes; abortion and gay marriage for example. But no Republican has to fear slighting his voter base by supporting missile defense
It has become a litmus test of loyalty to the Reagan legacy. President Reagan has assumed the same iconic place for Republicans that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had for so many years for Democrats. For example, John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, often refers to himself as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, as did his former opponents Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani. This revolution was based on three pillars--pro-life as opposed to pro-choice; government as the cause of society's problems as opposed to the solution; and a robust national missile defense as opposed to arms control negotiations or disarmament. Some Republicans have difficulty completely supporting the first two pillars: The majority of Americans want to place only a few restrictions on a woman's right to choose and view government as a solution to many of our economic and social problems. But there is no political downside for a Republican to embrace missile defense.
To me that says as much about people's apathy about this issue as it does about Republicans' love for it. As Korb says, most Americans either don't care about missile defense, consider it necessary by default, or assume that they already have it. All three beliefs are fatalistic. The US has already engendered much ill-will even among potential allies such as Russia by planning to install missile defense systems in Europe and now that he knows that he is going to leave soon, Bush seems to be obsessed with putting everything in place before the end of his regime. He and his associates are finely honing their long-acquired skills of causing the maximum damage in the minimum amount of time. Just like RAND theorists in the 1950s pleasured their intellectual apparatus by imagining global thermonuclear war, so do the current denizens of the Pentagon spend their twilight hours fantasizing about hordes of non-existent North-Korean and Iranian ICBMs. And they spend hundreds of billions of dollars on this treasured dream, more than on any single goal. As I have mentioned before, libertarians should be up in arms against this gratuitous diarrhea of taxpayer dollars.

And all this when even the basic technical feasibility of missile defense is questioned. The bottom line is simple. Almost every ABM system imagined in the US since the 1960s has focused on midcourse interception, that is trying to intercept and destroy a missile as it makes its way down through the atmosphere. Simply put, this is almost impossible to do since countless decoys dressed up in the missile's visual and thermal signature will be making their way down at the same speed, making it more than a nightmare for any interceptor to distinguish missile from noise. Using such cheap decoys, the offense will quickly overwhelm the defense. This fact has been demonstrated time and time again, ad nauseam for the last 40 years, most notably by Richard Garwin (see Garwin's presentation on the proposed European "shield"). So not only is the proposed system politically and internationally misguided, but it won't even work. Many compliments to the brilliant officials at the Pentagon.

But it is wrong to feel frustrated, and prudent to understand. We should know that minor kinks like "feasibility", "facts" and "international goodwill" have never thwarted the wishes of the current administration. So it's probably not surprising that they would follow the path to hell inaugurated by their illustrious predecessor. But as far as foreign policy goes, this issue is as good a reason for Democrats to take power as any other. And it's high time that Americans take as much cognizance of and express as much outrage on this issue as they do on healthcare or the war in Iraq. This issue will have as deep and perhaps more long-lasting significance for the national security of the US as anything else. Meanwhile, defenses against terrorists smuggling dirty bombs across borders remain weak.

Past posts on missile defense: 1, 2



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