"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
A Debate Deferred: Missile Defense After the September 11 Attacks

Senator Carl Levin

The unanimous Senate vote to approve the defense authorization bill that took place in the wake of the horrific September 11 terrorist attacks may have left many arms control advocates with a number of questions. Has the debate over national missile defense, the Bush administration’s most controversial defense policy, been abandoned as the nation and the Congress understandably closed ranks in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington? Have critics of the administration’s headlong rush to unilaterally deploy a national missile defense system simply thrown in the towel? And is it now inevitable that the administration will withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, a key element in global arms control policy for almost three decades?

In short, the answer to those three questions is “No.”

No, the debate over national missile defense policy has not been abandoned. This debate has simply been deferred to a time when the issue can be effectively debated in Congress.

No, critics of the administration’s approach have not given up the fight. Those of us who have argued that unilaterally deploying a missile defense system could make the United States less, not more, secure find fresh evidence for our position in the administration’s admirable multilateral response to the recent terrorist attacks.

No, it is not inevitable that the administration will withdraw from the ABM Treaty in the coming months. In fact, given recent statements by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in Shanghai and the complex realities of the post-September 11 world, that possibility, once thought to be a forgone conclusion, appears less likely. Indeed, the November summit between the two leaders in Washington and Crawford, Texas, is an opportunity for the United States and Russia to make progress toward modifying but not abandoning the ABM Treaty while preserving strategic stability and permitting significant nuclear reductions.

The political landscape throughout the last year had made it appear all but inevitable that the administration would unilaterally withdraw from the ABM Treaty. President Bush’s inauguration put an unconditional supporter of national missile defense in the White House, and the direction of the Bush foreign policy that emerged in virtually every arena suggested that unilateralism would be the watchword of the new administration. The president used his office to argue that, without a national missile defense system, our country would be vulnerable in the face of nuclear threats by rogue states, such as North Korea, in the event that they acquired long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

The president’s position won support from most Republicans and some Democrats despite the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that there are other, far more likely means of delivering a weapon of mass destruction than a ballistic missile. These other means of delivery are a small plane, truck, ship, or briefcase, because these methods would be more accurate, more reliable, less costly, harder to detect, and—unlike a ballistic missile—have no “return address” that the United States could easily identify and retaliate against. But no matter how many blue-ribbon, bi-partisan reports sounded the alarm over these more likely means of delivering a weapon of mass destruction to U.S. soil, it was difficult to compete with the administration’s relentless advocacy of national missile defense as its top priority.

Less than five months into the Bush presidency, Senator Jim Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican party created a new balance of power in the Senate and new opportunities to weigh the administration’s missile defense plans against a broader assessment of our security needs. As the new chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, I believed that many in Congress who were swayed by the administration’s argument would nevertheless be reluctant to pursue national missile defense in a manner that would upset the delicate balance of arms control agreements that had helped to restrain a wider nuclear arms race during the Cold War and that provided needed stability in the post-Cold War world.

For those of us concerned that unilateral action could ultimately leave the United States less secure, the challenge became fashioning a position that put a brake on the administration’s efforts while garnering the support of a majority on the Armed Services Committee and in the full Senate. The defense authorization bill, in its original form, did just that within the committee.

First, the committee agreed that the following four criteria—developed under the Clinton administration—should continue to be applied prior to deployment of a national missile defense system: (1) the threat should warrant deployment; (2) the system should be demonstrated through realistic testing to be operationally effective; (3) the cost should be weighed against other critical defense needs; and (4) deployment should make the United States more secure, taking into account the likely response of other nations.

Second—and following the logic of these four criteria—the committee supported research, development, and testing to give the United States the option to deploy a national missile defense system if the situation warranted. At the same time, we scrutinized the administration’s request of $8.3 billion for missile defense in fiscal year 2002—a $3 billion, or 57 percent, increase over the 2001 funding level approved under President Bill Clinton. Recognizing that most defense programs cannot sustain such large infusions of funding and still spend those funds wisely in a single year, our committee redirected $1.3 billion of this requested funding increase to other more pressing defense needs, such as combating terrorism. This reduction amounted to almost half of the president’s requested increase for missile defense.

Finally, the committee conditioned the expenditure of funds for missile defense activities in fiscal year 2002 on a vote by Congress if the president determined that one or more of those activities would conflict with the ABM Treaty. Such a provision was necessary because our committee never received a clear answer as to whether any of the proposed activities we were being asked to fund in fiscal year 2002 would conflict with the treaty.

In its responses to repeated committee inquiries on this critical question, the administration wavered between vagueness and inconsistency. On June 13, 2001, the director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, had informed the committee that, as far as he knew at the time, the proposed missile defense program did not include activities that would violate the ABM Treaty in fiscal year 2002. But just two weeks later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the committee that he did not know whether that was the case.

Then, a few weeks later, the administration presented a far different view. In July, the administration prepared a policy paper that stated, “As we have informed our allies and Russia, we expect our [research and development] efforts will conflict with the ABM Treaty limitations in a matter of months, not years.” Days later, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz testified to the committee that “one or more aspects” of the missile defense testing program “will inevitably bump up against treaty restrictions. Such an event is likely to occur in months rather than in years.”

In early July, I tried to end the confusion. I sent a letter to Secretary Rumsfeld asking the following question: “Are there any activities proposed to be carried out with the funding you are requesting for missile defense in fiscal year 2002 that would not be in compliance with the ABM Treaty and, if carried out, either would cause a violation of the Treaty or would cause the United States to give notice under the provisions of the Treaty that we would withdraw from the Treaty?”

In his September 10 answer to my letter, Secretary Rumsfeld stated that the administration “has no plans to violate the treaty…in 2002.” But this response ducked the key question because the secretary failed to answer whether the administration’s proposed tests would prompt it to give notice under the treaty that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the treaty.

The administration’s vagueness and inconsistency on this important question was of deep concern to the committee because such a unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty could have serious implications for the security of the United States and our relations with other nations. Unilateral withdrawal could strain our relations with allies and friends in Europe and Asia who recognize that the treaty has allowed nuclear arms reductions and promoted stability for three decades. It could lead Russia to stop dismantling nuclear weapons and to retain or eventually increase its multiple warheads on long-range missiles. It also could lead other nations such as China to speed the deployment, or increase the number, of their long-range nuclear missiles.

All these activities would result in more nuclear warheads on the territory of other nations and could lead to an increased risk of theft or proliferation of such warheads or their materials to rogue states or terrorists. Indeed, a bipartisan task force chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler stated in its January 2001 report that “the most urgent unmet national security threat to the U.S. today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction…could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home.”

In addition, Russia and China could respond to unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty by producing, deploying, and probably selling missile defense countermeasures and decoys to our potential adversaries. A spiraling race of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures could then ensue.

Democrats on the Armed Services Committee realized that, if we approved funds that could be used for activities that would conflict with the ABM Treaty and that prompted a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, Congress would bear joint responsibility for the consequences. Conditioning the expenditure of funds for missile defense activities in fiscal year 2002 on a vote by Congress—assuming the president determined that one or more of those activities would conflict with the treaty—was a reasonable way of ensuring that Congress could make a clear and informed decision based on an understanding of the circumstances at the time the activity was proposed. Because this language made no pre-judgment as to the wisdom of unilateral withdrawal, we were able to gain the support of a majority of the committee, including some who support deployment of a national missile defense.

Claiming that such a vote by Congress would tie the hands of the president in his discussions with Russia over a “new strategic framework” that would permit a national missile defense, every Republican on the committee voted against the bill. President Bush threatened a veto. The New York Times reported an impending “floor fight.”

Then came September 11. With the country and the Congress understandably rallying around the president in the war on terrorism, it would have been a highly disadvantageous time to debate a controversial national security issue. The claim—although incorrect—that our bill tied the hands of the commander-in-chief would have resonated with many. An already difficult floor fight would have been made even more so, and a reasonable debate over missile defense would have become impossible.

Fortunately, a solution was achieved. The requirement for a congressional vote before missile defense funds could be used for activities in conflict with the ABM Treaty was put in a separate bill, which was placed on the Senate calendar so that the majority leader could call the bill up for debate in the future.

We also avoided a counterproductive fight over the $1.3 billion in funding reductions to the president’s increase in missile defense funds. These funds were restored, but we broadened their potential use to afford the president the choice of using them for missile defense and/or to fight terrorism, whichever he deems to be in our national security interest. I sincerely hope that, given the choice between spending more than $1 billion on unproven missile defense systems and spending that money to confront the terrorist threat against America, the president will wisely choose the latter.

The subsequent unanimous Senate vote on the defense bill sent a message of unity to our military men and women, the country, and the world just as U.S. forces prepared for military operations against terrorists and their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan. It also preserved the national missile defense debate for a later and more appropriate time. When that debate resumes, it will be in a political environment forever changed by the events of September 11.

Never again will supporters of national missile defense be able to claim, as President Bush did in May, that ballistic missiles in the hands of rogue regimes constitute “today’s most urgent threat.” The attacks of September 11 illustrated that ballistic missiles are not the tools of terrorists such as Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. Nor are terrorists likely to obtain ballistic missiles for future attacks. When the missile defense debate resumes, there must be a renewed appreciation that every dollar we spend on the least likely threat of ballistic missiles is a dollar not spent on the most likely threat: terrorism.

Also changed—and hopefully not just for the moment—is the administration’s basic approach to foreign affairs. Gone virtually overnight is the unilateralist, go-it-alone approach so prevalent before the attacks. Unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty—with all its attendant risks to U.S. security—once seemed inevitable. Now it seems less likely as the administration works to sustain a broad, international coalition, which includes Russia, to fight terrorism. In a world of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, it is increasingly clear that nations will be more or less secure together. In the wake of the discussions between Presidents Bush and Putin in Shanghai, there appears to be some hope that the United States and Russia can reach agreement on missile defense and nuclear reductions.

When they meet in November, the two presidents will hopefully work out an agreement that will preserve strategic stability and increase mutual security. Such an agreement would permit significant nuclear weapon reductions and testing and eventual deployment of limited national missile defenses, either by a modification of the ABM Treaty or its replacement by a new agreement. Either way, the key ingredient is to pursue a cooperative approach with Russia, rather than a unilateral course. That is the best way to enhance America’s security.

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.