WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Tuesday committed the United States to building a defense against ballistic missile attack and indicated he would not allow a Cold War-era arms treaty to stand in the way. The commitment could be an economic boon to Alaska, where radar and a ground-based interceptors likely would be based.
''We need a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world,'' said Bush, who spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin before announcing his plan.
He said he told the Russian leader he would like to meet with him soon. White House officials said they were exploring the possibility of a meeting somewhere in Europe during the president's travels in connection with a European Union summit June 15-16. ''I told him I'd love to meet with him beforehand, to look him in the eye and let him know how sincere I am about achieving a new way of keeping the peace,'' Bush said.
The president's remarks on defense marked the start of an intensified campaign to convince America's European and Asian allies -- as well as Russia, China and others hostile to the idea of missile defense -- that attacks by ballistic missiles can best be deterred by defenses rather than large offenses.
''Cold War deterrence is no long enough,'' Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University
''To maintain peace, protect our own citizens and our own allies and friends we must seek security based on more than the grim premise that we can destroy those who seek to destroy us,'' he said.
He said he was sending senior aides to allied capitals in Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada to discuss ''our common responsibility to create a new framework for security and stability that reflects the world of today.''
The delegations will be headed by Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state; Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense; and Steve Hadley a deputy national security adviser, Bush said.
''These will be real consultations. We are not presenting our friends and allies with unilateral decisions already made. We look forward to hearing their views, the views of our friends, and to take them into account.''
Cost estimates for a missile defense have ranged from $30 billion to $200 billion, depending on its structure. Among the main criticisms of missile defense are its high cost and unknown effectiveness.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was quick to question Bush's commitment to missile defense.
''We fear the president may be buying a lemon here,'' Daschle said. ''There has not been a shred of evidence that this works. We've got to ask some very tough questions.''
Bush called the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty -- which prohibits large-scale missile defenses -- a relic of the Cold War.
''We must move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM treaty,'' the president said. ''This treaty does not recognize the present or point us to the future. It enshrines the past.''
Bush did not say the United States would withdraw from the treaty but he focused much of his speech on what he views as its shortcomings.
Bush said the United States would move quickly to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons, although he mentioned no numbers.
In an indication that these reductions might be made unilaterally, Bush said the cuts would show the United States is ready to ''lead by example.''
The United States now has about 7,200 nuclear weapons and is committed to cutting to between 3,000 and 3,500 under the START II treaty. Both the United States and Russia have indicated a willingness to drop even lower, to a range of 2,000 to 2,500 warheads, although that has not been settled in a formal treaty.
Without offering specifics, Bush said his administration would change ''the size, the composition, the character of our nuclear forces'' in ways that ''reflect the reality that the Cold War is over.''
The administration believes deep reductions, whether taken unilaterally or as part of a formal agreement with Russia, would help convince Moscow that U.S. missile defense is not aimed at Russia or intended to give the United States, the world's remaining superpower, absolute military dominance.
A major obstacle to deploying a large-scale missile defense is the strong support in Europe and Russia for the ABM treaty. The Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to get Russia to agree to amend the treaty in ways that would permit national missile defenses.
Bush noted the ABM treaty was written when the United States and the former Soviet Union were avowed enemies with thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at each other.
''We should leave behind the constraints of an ABM treaty that perpetuates a situation based on mistrust,'' he said. ''It prohibits us from exploring all options.''
Just hours before his speech, Bush called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss disarmament and nuclear weapons. The White House quoted Bush as saying that Putin ''was very appreciative'' that Bush reached out to him. On Monday Bush called several European leaders and NATO's chief.
As Bush's motorcade entered the university grounds at Fort McNair on the banks of the Potomac River, it passed a demonstration of about a dozen people holding a large yellow banner that said, ''Stop Star Wars.''
Bush did not say whether he would seek to amend the treaty.
Although he did not provide details on the kind of missile defense his administration will build, he indicated it likely would include not only land-based interceptors, but also weapons based on ships at sea.
He said these defenses are needed not to deter Russia or other established nuclear powers but rogue nations -- ''states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life.'' He mentioned no countries by name.
For Alaska, the decision is likely to mean construction of a radar installation in the far western Aleutians and possibly a missile base in Interior Alaska. Fort Greely near Delta Junction is considered a leading contender for that base.
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