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former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Democrats Say Debate on Missile Defense Not Over

Wade Boese

On October 1, less than two weeks after the Senate shelved legislation designed to curb the Bush administration’s missile defense plans, two senior Democrats said that the debate regarding U.S. missile defenses and possible withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was not over.

Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) made their remarks the day before the Senate unanimously passed a bill authorizing $343.5 billion for fiscal year 2002 defense spending, including nearly $8.3 billion for missile defense. The Senate and the House are currently meeting to reconcile their two versions of the defense bill before sending it to the president for signature.

Over Republican objections, Levin and his fellow Democrats on the Armed Services Committee had voted September 7 to shift $1.3 billion from missile defense to other Pentagon programs. They also inserted a provision into the defense authorization bill requiring a specific congressional vote to approve funding for any missile defense activity “inconsistent” with the ABM Treaty, which prohibits the United States and Russia from deploying nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles.

But Levin subsequently removed the restrictions after the September 11 terrorist attacks, arguing that it was not an appropriate time for a divisive debate.

However, in a speech on the Senate floor October 1, Byrd questioned whether Democrats had acted too hastily in dropping their efforts to constrain missile defense testing. He expressed concern that the Senate not ignore or devalue its responsibilities to debate important issues even when legislators want to show a united front. Although describing as understandable the wish to “respond quickly to urgent needs,” Byrd suggested that a fast response to pressing matters should not serve as an “excuse to trample full and free debate.” He specifically asserted that a debate over the ABM Treaty should not be “lightly dismissed.”

Byrd said he was not sure where he stood on the ABM Treaty, which he characterized as a “major policy issue,” but he declared, “I do know I am not prepared to trade [the ABM Treaty] in on a still-to-be-developed, still-to-be-proven national missile defense program without giving the matter a great deal of thought and consideration.” He said that he wanted to hear others’ views on the subject and that the debate should take place “sooner rather than later.”

Levin, who took the floor after Byrd, defended his decision to remove the restrictions on missile defenses from the defense bill. Levin said he knew the president would veto the bill if it included the ABM language and therefore removed it and placed it in a separate bill that could be debated at a later, less emotional time.

Levin acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass restrictions on ABM testing as a separate, stand-alone bill, but he explained that by postponing the debate, which he said “will not go away,” there would be “a better chance of arguing the pros and cons of our position in an environment where we at least maximize our opportunity to prevail.”

Levin said he believes the debate over missile defense will continue because the Bush administration is unlikely to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM Treaty in the near term for fear of upsetting the international coalition that Washington is forging to wage its “war” on terrorism. Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of missile defense, has been courted by Washington as a key ally in the fight against terrorism. “Acting unilaterally to withdraw from an arms control treaty in this setting, it seems to me, is highly unlikely,” Levin said.

For his part, President George W. Bush reaffirmed in an October 11 press conference his distaste for the ABM Treaty, describing it as “outdated, antiquated, and useless.” Bush, who said the September 11 attacks made the case against the treaty “more strong today than it was on September 10,” did not answer a specific question whether he would withdraw from the treaty before the end of the year, but he underscored that he would continue to push Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the United States in developing a “new strategic relationship,” which the administration contends requires scrapping the treaty.

Behind the scenes, the administration sent a cable after the terrorist attacks to U.S. missions abroad, instructing them to be “proactive” in arguing that the ABM Treaty is “an outdated agreement that is inappropriate for the current security environment.” The cable added that U.S. officials should “also convey the Presidents [sic] determination to move beyond” the treaty. “Missile defenses remain an imperative,” the cable declared.