WASHINGTON, June 13 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush Thursday called for Congress to approve $7.8 billion in funds he requested in the 2003 budget to develop a missile defense system as the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty passed into history.
"With the treaty now behind us," Bush said in a statement, "our task is to develop and deploy effective defense against limited missile attacks."
President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the ABM treaty as the strategic nuclear forces of the two nations faced each other with thousands of warheads on each side, enough firepower to have ended the world for human habitation. At that time, U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces and the Soviet-backed forces of North Vietnam were engaged in an active combat in Southeast Asia and Europe was divided in two armed camps.
The superpowers maintained the peace by the dubious notion of 'mutual assured destruction' -- a deterrent based on the fact both sides would be destroyed if they began a nuclear missile exchange. At the time only Russia, Great Britain, France and China had nuclear weapons, though several other countries including Israel were striving to develop them. They barred an anti-missile system so neither side could block the other's missiles.
Bush ran for office in 2000 on the grounds that the treaty was an anachronism and the world threat had vastly changed. The Soviet Union had collapsed and, Bush argued, the greater danger of nuclear attack came less responsible states like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea who were trying to develop nuclear and missile technology.
He advocated developing a missile shield, not as grandiose as Reagan's "Star Wars" plan, but one that could down an attacking missile mid-course.
"We now face new threats from terrorists who seek to destroy our civilization by any means available to rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles," Bush said Thursday.
In the short term, argues Brookings Institution nuclear arms expert James Lindsay, the demise of the treaty means little. "The missile defense programs were probably not going to bump up against the ABM treaty for another two to three years."
In the long term, Lindsay argues, the tests will allow the Bush administration to "find out if they work."
But many question the cost and effectiveness of the administration's plans. Lindsay claims that Bush will be out office and it would likely be the end of the decade before it would be clear that a ground-based mid-course program to down a missile actually worked.
On Saturday, the Department of Defense is to begin construction of missile silos in Alaska and Thursday it conducted a test in the Pacific to see if missiles on a cruiser could down a test missile.
John Rhinelander, legal adviser in the original ABM Treaty negotiations claimed in a statement that building the Ft. Greely missile silos is a "Potemkim village," a façade that will not work. "The Pentagon has not even produced, let alone realistically tested, the missiles, nor has it built an effective radar to track and discriminate potential targets and the guide the interceptor missiles, " he said.
Lindsay and other agree that the key defense system for real U.S. continental defense, started during President Bill Clinton's administration, is almost an impossible task. The system would have to identify a missile fired across the Pacific or the Atlantic, acquired it a down it before it reached the United States.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, and 30 other members of the House of Representatives filed a lawsuit at the last minute to try block Bush from withdrawing from the ABM treaty, but by late Thursday the court had not acted. Kucinich argued that Bush could not withdraw from a treaty signed by a previous president and ratified by the Senate, but the ABM treaty, unlike many compacts, had a withdrawal clause allowing either side to withdraw with appropriate noticed. When Bush won Russian President Vladimir Putin's tacit acquiescence to ending ABM other objections in Europe and Congress fell apart.