Bush has more international leeway for controversial program since Sept. 11

Tide turns for missile defense

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The United States' withdrawal from the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty is a slap at Russia, China and most of America's European allies. But President Bush's timing in signaling the pullout may limit the damage, thanks to a crest of international good will in the war on terrorism.

''His popularity in this country is very high. Secondly, he certainly appears to be winning the war in Afghanistan. So in that sense, he's taking double advantage of his popularity at home and abroad,'' said John Issacs of Council for a Livable World, an arms-control group that opposes Bush's move.

Congress is also preoccupied with trying to finish work on must-pass spending bills so it can adjourn for the year -- and has little time to block such a move, even if it was so inclined.

Bush is expected to announce on Thursday that the United States is withdrawing from the 1972 ABM treaty, which expressly bans national missile defenses.

He tried to strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would allow the United States to move to a next phase of testing in its missile defense program -- beginning construction next spring on silos and a testing command center near Fairbanks, Alaska.

But Russia, which cannot afford a national missile defense, views the ABM treaty as a bedrock pact on which all subsequent nuclear arms-reduction treaties rest. Furthermore, Putin wasn't in a mood to compromise further, having already taken heat from Russian conservatives and the military for giving too much away to the United States.

''We have not been able to resolve this disagreement,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said glumly in Moscow after a final unsuccessful effort to reach a deal with Putin in the Kremlin on Monday.

America's European allies have argued against scrapping the ABM treaty so the United States can build a missile defense. They assert that would prompt Russia and China to build more and more missiles to keep their own nuclear forces credible. They claim the ABM has maintained strategic stability for 30 years.

Russians have been opposed because it would put them at a military disadvantage and further rub in America's technological superiority. And Chinese leaders fear that such a system could totally neutralize their batam nuclear force of fewer than 20 long-range nuclear missiles.

Bush has been threatening for months to exercise a clause in the ABM treaty that allows either side to withdraw by giving six-months' notice.

Many nations worry that a U.S. missile defense shield would only start a new arms race with Russia and China, and lead to more nuclear instability. But the September 11 terror attacks gave allies real threats to worry about -- not just potential ones.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a strong proponent of the ABM treaty, said differences remain with the United States. ''Let's not beat around the bush. Those differences are going to lead to some degree of upheaval,'' he said. ''But they must not, and I think they will not, lead to any kind of major crisis here.''

Bush claims the system, which could cost up to $80 billion, is not intended as a defense against missiles from Russia -- which, like the United States, still has roughly 6,000 long-range ballistic missiles fitted with nuclear warheads -- but from a limited attack from a rogue or terrorist nation.

However, it could also defend U.S. cities from an accidental firing of a Russian or Chinese missile.

The Sept. 11 attacks have only intensified Bush's resolve. ''I wish I could report to the American people that this threat does not exist, that our enemy is content with car bombs and box cutters, but I cannot,'' Bush said earlier this week.

It was not clear when the six-month clock would begin on the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty -- from the time of Bush's expected Thursday announcement, or from Jan 1, 2002.

''I'm not in a position to make any predictions,'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

In any event, the United States seems almost certain to use the six-month period to try to gain Moscow's last-ditch acquiesence.

''We will continue to work together on defense,'' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. He said the United States was ''willing to work out all kinds of arrangements'' to allow missile-defense testing to go forward without having to scrap the ABM treaty.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged U.S. restraint.

''There is no need to withdraw in terms of our testing program in the coming year,'' Levin said. ''Unilateral withdrawal will likely lead to an action-reaction cycle...and that kind of arms race would not make us more secure.''

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.

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