U.S. defusing opposition to missile plan

WASHINGTON, The Washington Post

In its first two months, the Bush administration has managed to defuse some of the international opposition to its missile defense plans by showing determination to proceed, appealing for unity among allies and engaging in subtle horse trading, particularly with Britain.

The administration’s strategy in meetings with foreign leaders — including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung — has been to seek accord on the fundamental need for some kind of missile defense, while postponing discussion of precisely what type of system should be built and how to rewrite arms control agreements to allow it.

Blair and Kim made clear that they continue to have concerns about America’s plans. But under the White House’s prodding, both of them signed nearly identical communiques acknowledging the existence of long-range missile threats and the need for defense to be part of a strategy against such threats.

“We’re not expecting anyone to say, ‘Gee, anything the Americans do we’ll be happy with,'” a senior Bush administration official said before the Kim meeting.”What we’re looking for is that they understand that the world has changed, that they understand it takes offensive and defensive, as well as nonproliferation, efforts to deal with a changing world. And that they understand that the president of the United States is absolutely serious about deployment of missile defenses when appropriate. … That’s all we’re asking from anyone at this time.”

Foreign leaders have bowed in part to a sense that a U.S. missile defense system is inevitable. “There is a recognition in the alliance that the decision has been taken and the (Bush) administration will not be talked out of it and that we should have a healthy discussion about how and when,” said NATO’s British secretary general, George Robertson.

During last year’s election campaign, Bush strongly advocated national and theater missile defense systems that would protect not only the 50 states, but also America’s allies and troops stationed abroad. The Clinton administration had pursued a more limited system and had tried, without success, to negotiate with Russia over amendments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits national missile defenses. Bush and his advisers dismissed the ABM Treaty as “a relic” and said a system should be built regardless of Russia’s opposition.

Since taking office, however, Bush has neither rushed to abrogate the treaty nor pushed talks with Moscow. Rather, the administration’s priority has been to allay the widespread fear among America’s allies that Bush’s plan could fuel an arms race among countries eager to overwhelm the new defenses, undermine the basic architecture of arms control and separate America, which would possess enormously costly missile defenses, from the rest of the world.

In early February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told European leaders gathered in Munich that missile defense “should be of concern to no one, save those who would threaten others.” And to emphasize that America will share its defenses, Bush administration officials have dropped the word “national” when talking about missile defense.

“I think that taking the ‘N’ out of ‘NMD’ has changed perceptions” that the United States would use missile defense to withdraw from, or dictate to, the rest of the world, Robertson said in Washington.

European leaders can afford to soft-pedal their opposition partly because the reality of missile defense is far away. Its technical feasibility remains unproven. The Bush administration has not decided whether it wants a system that intercepts missiles in mid-flight or in their initial “boost” phase. And even if the plans were clear and workable, it would take years — and tens of billions of dollars — to build.

“All the political downsides — seeming disputes with allies, upset with Russia and China — all the negative political effects of these come now even though the military payoff is years down the road,” said another senior Bush administration official. “That’s what we’re dealing with. Part of the job now is getting a common framework.”