Most Americans would agree that the country faces multiple threats.
Osama bin Laden remains at large. North Korea is pressing ahead with its nuclear program, and Iran is likely to become the newest member of the nuclear club. In Iraq, the stubborn insurgency takes a daily toll on American forces and has stretched the Army thin.
Refusing to set priorities in this dangerous world would qualify as the “failure of imagination” the 9/11 Commission warned about. And yet that’s what the White House and Congress are showing as they rush to deploy a faulty missile defense system against a threat that, for now, is relatively low.
That’s not to say that missile defense is without future value or that the threat is nonexistent. Intelligence sources say North Korea may have an untested missile that could reach the United States, and in time, other countries will acquire that capability. But deploying a missile defense program before it’s proven won’t deter enemies, and it drains funds from more urgent priorities.
Even if last week’s $85 million test of an interceptor missile had worked – which it didn’t – the White House would still fall short in its rationale for spending $11 billion a year on the system. That’s double what the Clinton administration spent on its policy of “robust research and development” of missile defense, and it comes at a time when the federal deficit is out of control.
The system being developed would rely on interceptor missiles in California and Alaska and aboard ships to attack enemy missiles at liftoff. Airborne lasers would fire at warheads re-entering the atmosphere.
As Ronald Reagan learned from his “Star Wars” proposal, a missile defense system wouldn’t stop a massive attack from a super power. It’s intended, instead, to stop a very small number of missiles from rogue nations such as North Korea or Iran.
But weigh the program against other threats that compete with it for funding:
. Loose warheads . A terrorist group obtaining nuclear warheads or chemical and biological weapons from the former Soviet Union’s tattered arsenal could strike the United States by smuggling a bomb across our porous borders. A rogue state might also prefer that method of attack since, unlike a missile, a suitcase bomb leaves no “return address.”
. New threats . The military has a term for the new threats it faces: asymmetric warfare. Building a military with the size, speed and flexibility to defeat new enemies means restraining spending on old threats such as Cold War-era ballistic missiles.
. Short-range missiles . The threat from short-range missiles fired by Iran or North Korea is very real, as the Israelis and Japanese well know. But the missile defense program does little to protect U.S. allies or troops stationed abroad.
As for the ballistic missile threat from rogue nations, the potential danger is real enough to warrant continued research but not premature deployment.
Deploying a system that repeatedly fails sends a message that missile defense is more about politics than protection. This is not the time for a lapse in imagination.