Bush commits to building missile defense system
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush committed the United States on Tuesday to building a shield against ballistic missile attack, warning that hostile nations like Iraq have replaced the Soviet Union as the ”most urgent threat” to America and its allies.
Offering a ”clear and clean break from the past,” Bush denounced a 29-year-old arms control treaty with Russia as a Cold War relic but softened his remarks by pledging to reduce U.S. nuclear arsenals. He said he would like to meet soon with Russian President Vladimir Putin to ”look him in the eye” and persuade him that a U.S. missile defense system does not threaten Moscow.
In his first major defense address, the president also offered a ”new framework” for U.S.-Russian relations that could include sharing information, warning Moscow of incoming attacks, and even a joint defense with America’s former nemesis.
”Unlike the Cold War, today’s most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in the Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of these states – states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life,” Bush said, mentioning Iraq in his next breath.
He spoke by telephone with Putin before outlining his plans at the National Defense University, and the pair made plans to meet as early as next month in Europe.
Opponents in Congress and abroad questioned Bush’s proposal to shield the United States with a wide range of unproven and costly systems designed to disable incoming missiles.
”We fear the president may be buying a lemon here,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. ”There has not been a shred of evidence that this works. We’ve got to ask some very tough questions.”
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said he does not oppose the concept of missile defense, but cautioned against undermining nuclear-reduction goals. ”Every missile not built is one we don’t have to defend against,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Bush’s plans ”inevitably impact upon global security and strategic stability.” He welcomed the readiness of the U.S. administration to consult other members of the international community.
The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed Bush’s pledge to consult with allies but stopped short of an outright endorsement of the missile plan. In Sweden, Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said America could trigger a new arms race.
Bush deployed three deputies to embassies around the world to begin consultations.
He said it was time to ”move beyond the constraints” of the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which sets strict limits on testing and deployment of anti-missile systems. Bush said the treaty was forged in a bygone era, when the Soviet Union cast an imposing shadow and the threat of mutual destruction kept two superpowers at bay.
”This treaty does not recognize the present or point us to the future. It enshrines the past,” Bush said, all but announcing what aides said was the next natural step: pulling out of the treaty.
”No treaty that prevents us from addressing today’s threats, that prohibits us from pursuing promising technology to defend ourselves, our friends and our allies is in our interests or the interests of world peace,” Bush said.
He said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has recommended that U.S. scientists and arms experts explore several approaches to missile defense, including land- and sea-based systems that intercept missiles at various stages of flight.
He left a slew of questions unanswered, including the cost of the system and the timetable for deploying it.
The United States has already spent more than $100 billion to develop missile defense technologies, beginning with the Reagan-era ”Star Wars” campaign. Some think Bush’s approach could cost $200 billion or more.
A rudimentary national defense system launched rather reluctantly by former President Clinton would cost $30 billion to $60 billion, but Bush has grander plans for a shield that stretches to virtually every corner of the globe.
Bush also did not say how far he was willing to cut the U.S. stockpile of 7,200 nuclear weapons. The United States already is committed under the START II Treaty with Russia to reduce the arsenal to 3,500 and Russia has sought even deeper cuts.
He hopes to assemble a basic system by the end of his first term, but has set no internal deadline, said a senior adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity. Rumsfeld has told Bush a system could be in place by 2004, though it may not be completely effective.
Bush himself suggested no system would be perfect.
”If based at sea or on aircraft, such approaches could provide limited but effective defenses,” he said.
Bush gave the speech at the same university where Clinton, exactly eight months ago, announced that he believed the technologies needed for a shield against ballistic missiles were not mature enough to commit to building one.
The last test of the Clinton prototype failed nearly a year ago and another was tentatively set for this summer. Neither Bush nor his advisers said whether the test would go forward.
Bush’s foreign policy team is said to be united behind the goal of missile defense, though some voices are louder than others. While Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brass are pushing for quick action, Secretary of State Colin Powell is said to be urging caution.
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