Jeffrey LewisMissile Defense and 21st Century Threats: Terrorism or China?

President Bush took a cheap shot at missile defense skeptics today:

I think those who oppose this ballistic missile system really don/’t understand the threats of the 21st century. They/’re living in the past.

The Kerry campaign answered with a brilliant press release asking: “Who Doesn/’t /’Understand the Threats of the 21st Century/’?”

May 2001 — Bush Said “Most Urgent Threat” Was Ballistic Missiles.
Bush: “Most troubling of all, the list of these countries includes some of the World/’s least responsible states. Unlike the Cold War, today/’s most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in the Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of these states, states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life. They seek weapons of mass destruction to intimidate their neighbors, and to keep the United States and other responsible nations from helping allies and friends in strategic parts of the world.” (Bush, Address at the National Defense University, 5/1/01)

May 2001 – Kerry Said “Immediate Threat” was From Terrorists and “Non-State Actors.”
Kerry: “But let me underscore that missile defense will do nothing to address what the Pentagon itself considers a much more likely and immediate threat to the American homeland from terrorists and from nonstate actors, who can quietly slip explosives into a building, unleash chemical weapons into a crowded subway, or send a crude nuclear weapon into a busy harbor.” (Kerry, Speech on Senate Floor, 5/2/01)

The press release also notes that, on September 9, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld “threatened to urge a presidential veto of a Senate plan to divert $600 million from missile defense systems to counterterrorism.”

And just which 21st century threats will missile defense defeat? Bush is maddeningly vague on the issue–referring to “tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world”–but here is how Keith Payne, a former Bush Administation official resposible for the Nuclear Posture Review, justified investments in missile defenses in 2001:

Depending on the circumstances, the U.S. might exploit nonnuclear and/or nuclear capabilities for attacking [Chinese] silo-based and mobile missiles. Unless the Chinese employed WMD against U.S. targets, however, the U.S. National Command Authorities almost certainly would be highly reluctant to authorize preventive nuclear strikes against such targets. And, even with improved U.S. attack capabilities, China/’s theater ballistic missiles would be difficult to destroy on the ground. All PRC short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles are mobile, making them easier to hide and harder to find. Consequently, offensive operations against ballistic missiles would need to be complemented by Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) … [Keith Payne, The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction, The University Press of Kentucky, 2001, 181. Emphasis Added.]

So let me get this straight: One candidate proposes spending money to fight terrrorism; he lives in the past. The other funds a missile defense as insurance in case we first strike the Chinese; he lives in the future … the distant future … in a galaxy far, far away …