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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 60, September 2001

News Review

Missile Defence Discussions Overshadowed by Attacks on US


The horror and shock of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have exerted an immediate influence on the missile defence debate in the United States. As part of the Congressional unity valued so highly in a time of national crisis, Democrats in the House and Senate abandoned attempts to cut over $1 billion from the Bush administration's $8.3 billion missile defence spending request for the next fiscal year (see last issue for details of the request). The longer-term affect of the attacks is hard to predict. Immediately prior to the incidents, leading Democrats were using increasingly scathing language to denounce what they portrayed as the administration's technically ill-considered and politically reckless rush to deploy unproven systems. The fact that even highly effective missile defence systems, were they available, would have done nothing to deter and prevent the September 11 outrages is clearly a powerful argument at the disposal of opponents of the administration's missile defence plans. The administration itself, however, and the many proponents of fast-track missile defence development and deployment, are already insisting that the United States is vulnerable on a number of levels to mass destructive incidents, one of the most frightening of which is the prospect of limited ballistic missile attack.

The administration's post-September 11 stance was set out succinctly by John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, in Moscow on September 17: "These horrible events demonstrated the validity of our concern, that there were people in the world who didn't adhere to classic notions of deterrence and whose value systems and respect for human life didn't match Western standards. While missile defence would not have prevented this abomination, it does show that the United States faces severe threats from terrorism and from rogue states, and that among the things we have to continue to work on is missile defence."

In Moscow on September 16, a Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Washington Post, clearly indicated that the US was moving with even less hesitation toward withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in order to intensify its missile defence programme without hindrance. Noting that "if anything, the likelihood of unilateral withdrawal has increased" since September 11, the official stated: "Missile defence will not fade as a priority of the administration. These incidents prove that there are people in the world for whom the concept of deterrence doesn't mean a thing. This was high-tech terrorism; these people had jet planes. And if these same people had access to ballistic missiles, do you think they wouldn't have used them?" Referring to ongoing US-Russian consultations on the issue, the official remarked that "the Russians have come to an acceptance that, absent some major development, the United States is going to withdraw from the ABM [Treaty] unilaterally or at least give [six months'] notice of withdrawal. They have realised that maybe we're not going to negotiate on this before the treaty is gone."

This apparent US impatience with the pace of consultations is matched by Moscow's frustration with what it sees as a lack of detail from Washington on the specifics of its plans both for missile defence and nuclear reductions. US officials have spoken of the planned November meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in Crawford, Texas, as a possible moment - the administration stresses that no deadline has been set - for a new accommodation to be reached. On September 5, Oleg Chernov, Deputy Secretary of the Presidential Security Council told reporters that such rapid progress would be "impossible," suggesting that at least 12 more months of discussions were required.

In a September 12 interview with CNN, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was asked: "How will the terrorist acts influence the course of the Russian-US ABM talks?" Ivanov replied: "I wouldn't like anybody to think that we want to exploit this difficult moment for the US in the debates with our American partners on START and ABM. Consultations are going on, the constructive dialogue continues. The US administration knows the stance of Russia. And we will continue to negotiate and to uphold our position. But we have always said that it is necessary to take a realistic view of the threats now facing mankind. Above all, it is, of course, terrorism. And this problem, by virtue of objective reasons, is today more urgent than, say, missile defence. Yes, START/ABM issues have to be discussed, and we will be doing so. At the same time urgent measures are required to counter the new threats and challenges, and here the US and we have a large field for coordination and cooperation." Quizzed on the same linkage, President Vladimir Putin told reporters on September 21: "We do not want to, and [we] will not, get involved in any horse trading. For us, the issue of uniting forces in the fight against terrorism is a separate theme of our cooperation..."

Speaking on Russian television nine days after the attacks, Foreign Minister Ivanov observed: I have to say that on the decision of our two Presidents, despite the tragic events, we have never stopped our consultations either between our Defence Ministries or the Foreign Ministries. ... It should be noted that the intensive consultations that our countries have been conducting on the basis of the well-known accords between our Presidents are already yielding concrete results. We have become better aware of each other's positions on a number of issues, and there are signs of a certain rapprochement in some areas."

Although there was some muted criticism of the missile defence vision in the US in the aftermath of September 11 - Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, for example, noted (September 12) that "unfortunately, today our threat is not a threat of somebody launching nuclear missiles at us" - Congressional Democrats overwhelmingly responded by halting their intense rhetorical and political offensive against the administration's approach.

The most dramatic evidence of the new mood came in the Senate on September 19, when the Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to reverse its decision - expressed in a partisan 13-12 vote on September 8 - to cut $1.3 billion missile defence spending from the FY 2002 Defense Authorization Act and withhold funds for any testing activities violating the ABM Treaty, even if the US had by the time of the tests withdrawn from the accord. The missile defence spending request will now be moved to a separate amendment to be considered at a later date, thus allowing the rest of the Authorization Act, including emergency expenditure related to the September 11 attacks, to be speedily approved. Committee Chair, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, told reporters on September 19: "We're trying to focus on areas where there's agreement, where there's unity now." Anita Dunn, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, stated simply on September 18: "We figured we didn't need a missile defence debate at this point." On September 20, the House of Representatives endorsed its version of the Authorization Act after Democrats dropped efforts to trim $1 billion from the missile defence request.

Shortly before the September 8 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made clear the importance of "every nickel" of the full $8.3 billion request. Describing the possible $1.3 billion cut as "enormous" and "very harmful," Rumsfeld declared (September 6): "We're not in the give-up mode." On September 5, Rumsfeld had warned: "To the extent the Russians develop a perception that the United States is not interested in going forward in providing defence against ballistic missiles or that we're split on that issue, obviously it's in their interest to not come to any agreements with us."

The day before the attacks, Joseph Biden, Democratic Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations, presented one of the strongest condemnations yet heard of the administration's plans. Addressing the National Press Club in Washington, Biden argued:

"Missile defence has to be weighed carefully against all other spending and all other military priorities. And in truth, our real security needs are much more earthbound and far less costly than national missile defence. ... [The United States should be a nation that] doesn't abandon arms control treaties with the excuse that they are relics of the Cold War [as President Bush has said]... I think many of those uttering that phrase are in fact themselves the relics of the Cold War. ... Are we willing to end four decades of arms control agreements to go it alone, a kind of bully nation, sometimes a little wrongheaded, but ready to make unilateral decisions in what we perceive to be our self-interest, and the hell with our treaties, our commitments in the world? ... I don't believe our national interests can be furthered, let alone achieved, in splendid indifference to the rest of the world's views of our policies. ... Let's not now raise the starting gun on a new arms race...[that is] sure, I promise you, to make my children and my grandchildren...feel less secure than we feel today. ... Let's stop this nonsense before we end up pulling the trigger..."

The same day as Biden's speech, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice expressed optimism that a transition from the ABM Treaty to a new arrangement could be achieved without harming either US or Russian interests. Speaking on NBC television, Dr. Rice stated: "It's very important to move beyond the treaty... We are going to make to the Russians and others an offer about a new strategic framework that we think is appropriate. Also on September 10, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov held out the barest glimmer of hope that the ABM Treaty could be adapted, though certainly not replaced: "Theoretically, I do not exclude such a possibility [of amending the treaty]... But this is theoretical: it has to be understood what anti-rocket defences are planned by the United States, what technical capabilities are firmed there, what environment - air, sea, land, space - is envisaged. Along with thresholds of nuclear weapons cuts, those are exactly the questions for which we still cannot receive answers from the American side." Earlier (September 1), in an interview with the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, President Putin set out in some detail his government's position on the crucial linkage between offensive and defensive systems. The President also sounded unhappy but philosophical about the prospect of the Bush administration walking away from the ABM Treaty:

"Take notice of our foreign policy moves in the field of security. We have acceded to all international obligations. We had long been urged to ratify the START II Treaty... We did it, our American partners haven't yet. ... [We ratified the CTBT although] we have no...computers for modelling nuclear explosions as do the Americans... And we do not intend to carry out nuclear explosions, in any case [not] until our partners, above all [the] Americans, do. We have suggested cutting down offensive arms to 1,500 warheads. But this makes sense, I want to stress, only in the case of [the] preservation or creation of confidence and verification measures on both sides [to ensure irreversibility]... That is, [without such measures] you can simply unscrew a warhead, put it nearby and at any second place it back. There should be no such thing. ... [So we] are not violating [our] obligations... Everything suits us. We are being told that, for example, something has become outdated, like the ABM Treaty of 1972. ... We do not agree...but still, showing a good will, we are ready for negotiations. Of course, the most extreme approach is possible, the toughest talk [suggesting] America is so strong that it doesn't need any talks or any treaties. Well, what is to be done? If such is the case, we can only throw up our hands, but we in this case too will not stir up any hysteria. I want to stress that in this case the issue is not even about us, but simply about the international security architecture."

On August 21, Pentagon spokesperson Pam Bain told reporters that the Defense Department was preparing to begin work on clearing a missile-defence site at Fort Greeley, Alaska. According to Bain, the intention was to complete all ground clearing work "by mid-December". She added that the planned missile-interceptor facility, including a command-and-control centre, was not expected to be operational before 2003 or 2004. In the administration's view, the ground clearing work does not contravene the ABM Treaty. At what point construction of the facility would cross the line into violation is a matter of heated expert and legal dispute. On September 4, Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told a Pentagon briefing that the administration did not intend to become bogged down in legal niceties but was committed to a more direct approach: "We are not trying to limit our missile defence programme or stretch the ABM Treaty through...creative lawyering to make the programme fit within the treaty. That's just not what we're doing. ... [A]s long as the treaty is the law, we're going to comply with the terms of the treaty, and when the time comes to move beyond the treaty, we will move beyond the treaty without violating it, just by giving the notice that its terms provide for. And we're not interested in playing those kinds of games with...pulling and tugging and trimming and cutting."

On August 28, eight US environmental campaign groups filed a federal lawsuit seeking to require the Pentagon to conduct a comprehensive environmental-impact study before beginning work at the Fort Greeley site.

Reports: Missile defense contract awarded, Associated Press, August 18; US, Russia talk missile defense, Associated Press, August 21; Paper - Pentagon Oks work on missile test site, Reuters, August 21; US to begin clearing land for anti-missile site, Reuters, August 21; Studies sought before missile testing, Associated Press, August 28; Green groups sue to block Alaska anti-missile site, Reuters, August 28; Interview granted by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, September 1, 2001, Russian Foreign Ministry transcript; Transcript - defense official Feith on Russia, missile defense, Washington File, September 6; No deal soon on missile defense plan, Russia says, Washington Post, September 6; Rumsfeld - Pentagon in no mood to compromise budget, Reuters, September 6; Rumsfeld warns on missile defense trim, Associated Press, September 6; Senate Committee cuts missile defense spending below Bush request, Washington File, September 7; Senate panel approves missile curbs, Washington Post, September 8; Senate panel approves defense bill, Associated Press, September 8; Defense chief unsure of US-Russia missile talks, Reuters, September 9; Russia open to ABM Treaty changes, Associated Press, September 10; Democrats plan attack on missile defense, Los Angeles Times, September 10; Biden says Bush missile defense plan could trigger new arms race, Washington File, September 10; Bush seeks missile defense deal with China, Russia, and sceptical US Congress, Agence France Presse, September 10; Russia readies for US arms talks with ABM hint, Reuters, September 10; Biden gives a tough critique of missile shield, New York Times, September 11; Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov's interview with American Television Channel CNN, September 12, 2001, Russian Foreign Ministry transcript; Missile defense debate resumes, Associated Press, September 12; Shield plan buoyed by a bipartisan mood, New York Times, September 14; US to pursue withdrawal from ABM pact, Washington Post, September 17; US diplomat - missile shield vital after attacks, Reuters, September 17; Dems to drop missile defense provision, Associated Press, September 17; Senators may drop missile curb, Washington Post, September 18; Senate Dems delete missile defense, Associated Press, September 18; Defense spending bill endorsed, Associated Press, September 20; Interview granted by Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov to RTR, September 20, 2001, Russian Foreign Ministry transcript; Russia's Putin sees no risk of large-scale war, Reuters, September 21; Senate to restore $1.3b for defense, Associated Press, September 21.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.