Making the World Safe for Nuclear Terrorists

Commentary by Pete du Pont

My, how things can change. In one week's time the world appears to be a significantly more dangerous place - especially for Americans.

Is the Clinton administration doing everything it can to make sure that American lives and property are not at risk? The answer is no, in spite of the fact that both the administration and Congress have been repeatedly warned about the growing potential for disaster. Here's what we know:

We know that a number of terrorists and rogue nations are seeking nuclear missile capability. For example, on July 22 Iran tested a ballistic missile. According to Martin S. Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near Easter affairs, Iran is aggressively expanding its missile capabilities. "While estimates tend to put their [Iran's] acquisition of nuclear weapons many years off, I would be cautious."

The only thing scarier than Iran gaining nuclear missile capability is that Iraq, North Korea, China or Osama Bin Laden - all of whom would like to be the first to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear weapon - may beat them to the punch.

We also know that a bipartisan commission headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, looking into the ballistic missile threat, unanimously concluded in July that missile technology is "evolving more rapidly" than some intelligence analysts thought and that terrorists and rogue nations could attack the United States with "little or no warning."

And we know that since the U.S.'s preemptive strike on terrorist installations, they have vowed retaliation - a retaliation that will likely hit women and children. During the Cold War, there was a general assumption that both the Soviet Union and the U.S. would do everything possible to avoid a nuclear engagement because it could escalate into worldwide destruction and because so many innocent people - civilians, women and children - would be unavoidably caught up in the disaster.

Unfortunately, the terrorists have no scruples against killing innocent civilians - as was demonstrated in the attack on two U.S. embassies in Africa - if they believe the action would further their mission.

Congress and the administration had the opportunity to do something about U.S. vulnerability to foreign missile attack. When Republicans introduced the American Missile Protection Act of 1998 last May, 41 Senate Democrats blocked the legislation from moving forward. Interestingly, the two senators from Hawaii - the state most vulnerable to strategic attack - did not vote with the other Democrats.

For around $2 billion to $3 billion, we could equip our ships with hundreds of missiles capable of intercepting and destroying incoming ballistic missiles, and provide an umbrella of protection for Americans.

This is not the high-tech Star Wars proposal that has been discussed since the Reagan years. The military has experimented with several such systems and has so far been unsuccessful. But the system proposed by Republicans is much simpler and could be deployed almost immediately.

So why would anyone oppose it? Critics of missile defense claim that we have a treaty that prohibits us from creating an incoming missile. But that treaty was signed with the old Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists. It was based on the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) philosophy - Was ever a policy more aptly named? - that required both the U.S. and Soviet Union to remain vulnerable to attack in the hope that neither side would start a war that would result in such human losses on its own side.

That philosophy won't work with terrorists who often rush to their death if it will cost American lives.

Just imagine what the political response would be like if a rogue nation of a terrorist organization were to successfully lob a missile at the U.S. Since polls show most Americans already believe that the military has the capability to destroy incoming missiles, Americans would demand an explanation from Congress and the administration.

Those who opposed funding a missile defense program would be scrambling for cover. Notions of former treaties and reduced defense budgets would sound ludicrously hollow. Americans would demand an answer from Democrats who stopped the legislation.

It's not too late. If the terrorist bombings in Africa and our subsequent air strike force the country to rethink its vulnerability, some good may come out of these things yet. Americans need to be protected, and we have the capability to do it.