Defense Against What?
George Szamuely
New York Press


"The best national missile defense requires a bold rhetorical offense," William Safire exulted when George W. Bush called for the United States to adopt a vast missile defense system. Most of the rest of the world looks upon the prospect of our becoming invulnerable to other countries’ missiles with some alarm. If the U.S. can bomb Serbs, humiliate Russians, destroy Chinese embassies and starve Iraqis today, what on Earth is it going to do when the antimissile "shield" is in place!

We can never admit our imperial ambitions publicly. Therefore, all manner of ludicrous reasons have to be put forward to justify development of the system. The method has become routine. America, as always, is the victim. As always, we are threatened by other powers. Like who? It can’t be the Russians. They’ve given up on communism and the Warsaw Pact, and drastically reduced the number of nuclear warheads they had in the Soviet era. It can’t be the Chinese. We’re in the process of establishing permanent normal trading relations with them. Besides, they only have 20 intercontinental missiles. Which leaves the "rogue states." Why a "rogue state" would lob a missile at a United States capable of swift, devastating retaliation is a mystery. Even if a "rogue state" did want to attack, it would make more sense for its agents to leave a nuclear device in downtown Washington instead of launching one whose provenance would immediately be known. Plus, "rogue states" are getting a little scarce. North Korea has just opened talks with South Korea. In a few years, the Pyongyang regime may be no more.

To be sure, there is still Iran. "Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the last half of the next decade," according to a recent CIA National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Note the "coulds." One can conjure up almost any threat that "could" one day arise. These days, however, the U.S. is so anxious to get its hands on the oil riches of the Caspian Sea that it is making nice with the ayatollahs. Not always successfully. Recently, the Hideous Harridan of Foggy Bottom apologized abjectly for American involvement in the overthrow of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosadeq. Albright – surely the most dimwitted member of any administration ever – seemed unaware that Iran’s Muslim clerics loathed the secularist Mosadeq even more intensely than either the CIA or the Shah. That only leaves our old friend, Saddam Hussein. "Iraq could test a North Korean-type ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to the United States in the last half of the next decade depending on the level of foreign assistance," in the trenchant words of the CIA’s NIE. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that 10 years of sanctions have done nothing to impair Saddam’s ability to build a rocket capable of reaching the U.S.

The CIA is a voice of reason compared to the hysteria of the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission. "Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States..." it spluttered. "The threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates by the Intelligence Community." Yet none of the "rogue states" is remotely close to having intercontinental missiles. Only the five major nuclear powers have them. Given that feebleness, it is hardly surprising that no one in the world believes that America would splash out $60 billion on a missile defense system out of fear of a few puny states. ($60 billion, incidentally, is just the cost of the less-expensive Clinton plan of 100 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and a few early warning radars. The Bush plan would likely be much more expensive.) No, the Missile Defense System is part and parcel of the American empire.

Fearing permanent subordination to the U.S., the Russians have already said that they will respond to any U.S. antimissile system by equipping their missiles with more warheads. If ever there was a case of imperial overreach, this is it! Current technology still can’t distinguish a nuclear warhead from a decoy balloon. Interceptors are unable to handle warheads that break up into hundreds of small bombs. After innumerable failures, last October a missile intercept test was successful. The interceptor supposedly distinguished the target from the decoy. Much Pentagon high-fiving ensued. It turned out, however, that the test was so artificial as to be almost meaningless. As Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained: "The target followed a pre-programmed flight path to a designated position. The interceptor missile also flew to a pre-programmed position. A Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver was placed on the target to send its position to ground control, and the necessary target location information was uploaded to a computer in the kill vehicle. The decoy released had a significantly different thermal signature than the target, making it easier for the sensors on the kill vehicle to distinguish between the objects."

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Archived Columns by George Szamuely from the New York Press

Defense Against What?

God Bless Rehnquist!

Long, Hillary Summer

Communicating Power

Law as Ordered

What Threat?

Peculiar Yet Brave

Closed to Debate

Arrogance of Power

Prison Love

Gore's Oil

Rough Justice

Race Race

Al the Coward

Intruder Alert

McCain's Money

Haider Seek

Out of Africa

Prosecute NATO

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be Un-American

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

In a second test in January, the interceptor failed to hit its target altogether. The test again involved the use of a GPS receiver for tracking information. As the CIA report ruefully points out, "Historically, the development and deployment of missile defense systems have been accompanied by the development of potential adversaries... The Russians and Chinese have had countermeasure programs for decades and are probably willing to transfer some related technology to others."

The swiftest and most dramatic end to the American empire will come about when some Madeleine Albright-type occupies the Oval Office. Drunk on the heady brew of "indispensable nation" claptrap, convinced of our technological prowess, the president will launch a military caper sublimely confident in our invulnerability.

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