20 August 2004

We're losing the arms race with North Korea

Clearly, this argument is counterintuitive. It may, at first glance, seem absurd. But stick with me.

The missile-defense complex in Alaska is designed specifically to help shoot down long-range ballistic missiles launched from North Korea. But a limited missile-defense system�which is the most we can expect over the next decade�is more likely to multiply than nullify this threat.

A look at history is useful. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the ABM Treaty, which severely restricted�and, in a subsequent addendum signed by Gerald Ford, banned�the deployment of ballistic-missile defenses. Why? Contrary to right-wing myth, it was not because of some doctrinal aversion to defenses. True, the theory of "Mutual Assured Destruction" held that the two superpowers should remain vulnerable to nuclear attack so that neither leader would launch a first strike knowing his own country would be destroyed in a retaliatory second strike. But MAD�as the theory was often called�was more theory than policy.

The real reasoning behind the treaty was purely practical. If the United States deployed, say, 50 defensive missiles�and assuming they all worked perfectly�the USSR could outwit the system and break through the defenses simply by deploying 51 offensive missiles. And the cost of those 51 offensive missiles would be a lot cheaper than the cost of the 50 defensive missiles. Finally, the USSR could stay ahead of this game much more cheaply still, because�even under the most optimistic projections�not all of our 50 defensive missiles would work. (For more about the reasoning, click here.)

In short, American, and eventually Soviet, decision-makers realized that missile defenses would trigger a costly offense-defense arms race, which the offense would inevitably win. Moreover, if nuclear war did break out in the middle of this arms race, the damage inflicted would be far greater. Each side would fire many more offensive missiles than it might have otherwise, calculating the need to saturate the other side's defenses. If the defenses turned out not to work so well (as many scientists predicted, back then as well as now), then those extra offensive missiles would simply blow up more territory, spread more radioactive fallout, and kill more people.

The parallel between then and now is not precise. North Korea does not have the resources that the Soviet Union had at the height of the Cold War. But with the deployment of the new missile-defense system, the United States has entered into an arms race with the North Koreans�an arms race we are likely to lose�and nobody in the White House or the Congress seems even to be aware of it.

Missile defence is the kind of strategic drivel which the Man of Steel is eagerly signing up for -- a system that does not and cannot work. There is a certain kind of conservative who fears thought itself. Clear thought about our alliance with the US is not beyond the Man of Steel's capacity. It may just be beyond his character.

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