May 15, 2001
Who's Crazy Here?
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
he Bush team's explanation for why we have to build a national missile defense shield gets more interesting by the week.
Think about it: President Bush argued in a speech that we must erect a missile shield because classic deterrence, which has kept the peace for 50 years — that is the principle that anyone who fires a missile at us will be destroyed by return mail — cannot deter crazy rogue states, such as Iraq, North Korea or Iran.
Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained that even if the missile shield 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 at us will be able to get through our imperfect shields or not. "They need not be 100 percent perfect" to have a deterrent effect on future adversaries, said Mr. Rumsfeld. Even if the system doesn't fully work? "There's no question" it would still deter, he answered. This has been called the "scarecrow" defense.
I get it! The Bush Doctrine says that rogue states are so crazy that they would launch a missile at us, even knowing that it would mean their certain destruction in return. But if we 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, our perfect missiles that will destroy any rogue state with 100 percent accuracy won't deter them, but our imperfect missile shield, which may have as many holes as a Swiss cheese, will deter them. I get it!
Not really. 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 they cannot be deterred is itself crazy. Do you think Kim Jong Il, Muammar el-Qaddafi, 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 don't confront us head on. They use terrorists, secret agents and third parties to hit us indirectly in our 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.
Why? Because they are anything but crazy! They want their regimes to survive. If they are so crazy and hellbent on attacking us, why aren't they doing it now, when we have 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 us with weapons of mass destruction their regimes will be destroyed. In other words, what is protecting us 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, that they would launch a missile at America, and it's protection we would probably never use anyway.
"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 pre-empt. 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."
Am I totally against missile defense? No. There are circumstances in which deploying it could make sense: if you had a system that actually worked, particularly theater missile defenses; if it were backed by our 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 it didn't undercut other defense programs that do work.
It's good to have layers of defense, just as it's good to have belts and suspenders. But if you already have suspenders, it would be crazy to pay $100 billion for a belt of uncertain reliability — especially if that belt makes it more likely your pants will fall down.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company