Bill Clinton says wait. Frank Murkowski says let's at least get started. Bill Cohen says we'll keep testing.
Such is the status of America's proposed missile defense system.
In this case, of course, the president has the final say. His decision is to delay, leaving to the next president the question of whether to build a system to protect America's cities from incoming ballistic missiles fired by a nation seeking to wreak havoc on the United States.
In an address to a meeting of students and faculty at Georgetown University Friday morning, Clinton said this: ''Because the emerging missile threat is real, we have an obligation to pursue a missile defense system that could enhance our security.''
''We should not move forward until we have absolute confidence that the system will work.'' In other words, when the time came to move forward, Clinton punted.
Sen. Murkowski expressed concern.
''While it is certainly understandable that the president would defer a decision on full deployment of a missile defense system until after further testing, I would have preferred him to proceed with preliminary contracts for the key Shemya radar installation this fall.
''Given the difficult weather and the extremely short construction season in the Aleutians, delaying any work until a new president takes office will certainly delay the timetable for deployment of a missile defense shield -- if it is proven feasible -- by a year or more.''
How do your prove it feasible?
Defense Secretary Cohen answered this way:
''I have noted on many occasions that several emerging threats warrant the deployment of an effective missile defense program as soon as technologically feasible and I will work closely with my successor on providing all appropriate information. In the meantime, we will aggressively proceed with the developmental testing program and also continue our consultations with the Congress, our allies, and with Russia.''
Since this debate began many months ago, we have continually stressed in comments here the need to continue testing our military's ability to intercept incoming missiles. The anti-everything crowd has howled every step along the way.
But success can only come after systems have been tested, over and over again.
Cohen has it right. So does Murkowski, for that matter. Early design and engineering for a Shemya radar should begin now.
Yet it's difficult to fault Clinton on his decision to pass the buck. He's going to be out of there in 4 1/2 months -- and it's just as well that he makes no big decisions of any kind in the meantime.
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