A little more than 25 years ago, on March 23, 1983, President Reagan asked Americans a simple question: “What if free people could live secure inthe knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation … [but instead] that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?”
The weeks surrounding the quarter-century anniversary of that Reagan speech have provided ample proof that his hopes were well founded, and that the sneers of his liberal critics were undeserved. Missile defense works; it will be deployed to Europe; and Russia is tacitly accepting both its inevitability and even its potential benefits. All of which makes it even more essential that our next president be fully supportive of missile defense. Sen. John McCain strongly supports such defenses, while Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both want to scale them back severely. The positions of the latter two are reckless.
For 25 years, American liberals have said that missile defenses wouldn’t work. But the most recent tests of both land- and sea-based systems were successful, and on Feb. 20 a Navy missile scored a direct hit on a disabled spy satellite before its secrets could fall into enemy hands and before its toxic fuel could escape into Earth’s atmosphere. And with missile defenses already partly operational in the U.S., it is no wonder that the main debate about European missile defenses is not about whether to build them, but only about where.
President Bush scored a diplomatic coup last week when he secured NATO approval for a system based in the Czech Republic and in Poland — despite clear, longstanding opposition from the Kremlin. Then, fresh from success at the NATO meeting, Bush met with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin and secured a noticeably positive change in Putin’s rhetoric. Putin is a hard-edge realist, and he obviously recognized that the NATO agreement left Russia a weak hand to play.
“An opportunity to work together is appearing,” Putin said of the planned deployment. Bush and his successors ought to welcome that climb-down from the previous Russian position. But American leaders must be wary to keep the upper hand, rather than let Russian semi-cooperation turn into a Russian veto of the project down the line. Even worse would be for a newAmerican president to be the one vetoing missile defense just as it becomes a technological and diplomatic triumph.