Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has a suggestion for those who still doubt we should be building a missile defense system. In my interview with him last Thursday, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “All anyone has to do is read the words of the leadership in [North] Korea and Iran, and look to their behavior with respect to the development of ballistic missile technologies and nuclear capability.” Even for those of us who have been supporters of missile defense since President Reagan announced it in 1986, Mr. Rumsfeld’s mild admonition is good advice.
Examining Mr. Rumsfeld’s examples — Kim Jong-il’s North Korea and Ahmadinejad’s Iran — proves the point. After its July missile tests, the North Korean news agency said that the NK government denied that it had any obligation to follow the international norms for missile launches saying, “The [Korean People’s Army] will go on with missile launch exercises as part of its efforts to bolster deterrent for self-defense in the future, too.” It added, “The DPRK will have no option but to take stronger physical actions of other forms, should any other country dares take issue with the exercises and put pressure upon it.” As if to prove Mr. Rumsfeld’s point, North Korea’s Deputy Chief of its mission to the United Nations said on June 21, “North Korea as a sovereign state has the right to develop, test fire and export a missile.” (Note the lack of qualifiers. The North Koreans don’t have European manners, so they don’t bother to make a perfunctory statement about exporting only to those whose surnames aren’t bin Laden or Nasrallah or Ahmadinejad.)
Mr. Ahmadinejad is smarter and cagier. In a long news conference on August 30 (reported by the Financial Times), Ahmadinejad continued to deny Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. But when asked about the UN Security Council and the possibility of sanctions against Iran he said, “I think the time has passed to settle problems through using the Security Council as a tool….Our position is completely clear. Our nation has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Iranian nation has chosen this. It wants to use [nuclear energy] according to international rules and regulations, and no one can stop it.”
Ahmadinejad said something we all should agree with. The time to use the UN Security Council as a diplomatic mechanism to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program has passed. The UN’s August 31 deadline came and went, and the EUnuchs are already calling for more talks with Iran. And, while Ahmadinejad’s regime pursues both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of ever-greater capability, Kofi Annan is developing Neville Chamberlain’s art of appeasement into a science. Ignoring Ahmadinejad’s statement of less than a week ago, Annan — in Tehran last weekend — said that, “On the nuclear issue, [Ahmadinejad] reaffirmed to me Iran’s preparedness and commitment to hold negotiations” with Western powers to find a solution to the impasse over Tehran’s nuclear activities. Once again, the UN — and the EU — do worse than appease. They establish diplomacy as an end in itself and by so doing doom it to failure. No matter Iran’s intransigence, diplomacy will continue without requiring Iran to stop its development of nuclear weapons while the talks go on. Where does that leave us?
With defending ourselves and our allies as best we can. If we aren’t going to strike at Iran’s regime or North Korea’s missile capability — which actions the president has neither disavowed nor taken steps to accomplish — we have to undertake to build the best defenses we can, which means ballistic missile defense.
IN OUR THURSDAY CONVERSATION, Rumsfeld said, “I was there in the White House when President Reagan made his announcement that evening about missile defense and the wisdom of it is clearer every year, that weapons are increasingly more powerful and increasingly available. We owe it to our people to provide for their protection and their safety. To be willing to engage in a serious effort over a sustained period of time to develop the capabilities to deter and defend against a range of threats.”
A lot of research had been done in the fifteen years between 1986 and 2001, but not much else was done because to do so would have violated the ABM Treaty. Rumsfeld was one of the principal architects of our exit from that treaty. Rumsfeld credits President Bush’s leadership for what was accomplished. If we hadn’t exited the treaty, we wouldn’t be where we are today, or able to have a fully functioning system in the near future.
When President Bush exercised our option to exit the ABM Treaty, no one had yet made the decisions to sort out the options and take the steps necessary to deploying a real defense to missile attack. Rumsfeld said, “If you may recall, back in the year 2000 this debate had gotten almost theological. It was a hair knot. Proponents were adamant and opponents were adamant. Proponents disagreed as to whether it ought to be space-based, land-based, sea-based and everyone was quite emotional about it all. And it was considered a national missile defense system. We shifted it to a missile defense system in a way that would not have our allies feel we were looking out for ourselves and not the rest of the world. And it’s made a big difference. We’re now getting cooperation from several countries in Europe. We’re getting cooperation from Japan, and of course the more cooperation you get the more sensors you have. The more locations you have the more capable the system.” Rumsfeld cut the knot, choosing a primarily ground-based system. It’s not complete, but it is — right now — deployed with a capability that is likely to cancel out North Korea’s threat.
Last Friday, in a test of improvements to the already-deployed parts of the system using sea-based and land-based sensors, the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency detected a missile launched from Alaska, launched an interceptor missile, and destroyed the target. This successful test followed a number of failures that opponents say proves the system will never work.
Almost twenty years ago, when working for Lockheed, I got to know Ben Rich, the genius behind stealth aircraft who was running the super-secret “Skunk Works.” Ben often told the story about how the Polaris sub-launched ICBM failed in more than a dozen test launches before its developers made it an innovative and reliable part of our deterrence force. Rich doubted any developmental system could survive today’s Congressional micromanagement. I asked Rumsfeld about the prior test failures.
He said, “Each time you conduct an experiment that doesn’t work, you could say it’s a failure. On the other hand you could say you’ve learned something. Opponents pretend that it’s failure. And it isn’t failure at all. If you have intelligent people working on a serious project and they engage in it they’re not going to come out with it in the first instance with a full system that’s perfect….You have to learn by doing, by testing and experimenting.” Which is just what Ben Rich told me years ago. Without developmental tests — failures and successes — you can’t learn those things that can’t be figured out on paper.
What Bush and Rumsfeld have accomplished so far has put America on the path that will take ballistic missile defense from vision to reality. But it will take years’ more testing and development before the system is fully deployed, and even after that it will have to evolve continuously because the threat will as well. Commitment to continuing what the president and Rumsfeld have begun should be a litmus test for any 2008 presidential candidate.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and, with Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Regnery, May 2006 — click here to obtain a free chapter).