Bush Accelerates Missile Defense ; Bush Team Wants to Create a Sense of Inevitability, but Critics Say the US Is Risking a Game of High-Stakes Chicken

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The Bush administration is pressing hard to make the 1972 Anti- Ballistic Missile treaty a thing of the geopolitical past and put the United States on an almost irreversible path toward strategic missile defenses.

Any US antimissile shield is still years away from deployment. Yet teams of high-ranking officials will travel to Europe next week, in the wake of the president's speech yesterday on nuclear issues, to engage ally and adversary alike in delicate ABM and missile-defense diplomacy.

In essence, the nation's new security team is bringing up a tough subject before it really has to. The likely goal: create a sense of inevitability about the dawning of a new nuclear age.

"They're sending a clear signal that this is what we're going to do," says Wade Boese, a senior research analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington. "They want to get that out of the way."

There is debate even among administration officials as to whether an accelerated, more aggressive approach toward nuclear issues will be effective.

Under a best-case scenario, European governments will quietly accept the US move toward a defense-dominated atomic regime. Russia, lured by a promise of further deep reductions in offensive nuclear weapons, will agree to some sort of framework that includes a mutual reworking or elimination of ABM restrictions.

The US could then pump billions into defensive research projects, secure in the knowledge that they could be deployed, if proven to work.

A worst-case scenario would involve continued fierce Russian opposition to something that it believes could make its own nuclear deterrent obsolete. Key European governments such as Britain and Denmark, where the US would like to upgrade early-warning radars, would remain nervous, or worse. The US could be then be caught in a game of high-stakes chicken, edging closer year by year towards unilateral deployment of defenses, saying all the while, "we really mean it, we really mean it."

Yet some aspects of the more-robust layered defense system that the president favors aren't yet even in the design stage. "I'm a little uncertain that they really need to fight this fight now," says William Hartung, director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at New School University's World Policy Institute.

Missile defense is not solely a GOP issue. Almost 20 years after Ronald Reagan brought the defenses back to public view with his ambitious Star Wars initiative, Republican and many Democratic lawmakers have struck a consensus that the rapid advance of guidance and targeting technologies has brought effective defense within the realm of possibility.

Differences lie mostly in the avidity with which lawmakers want to pursue such a system. The Clinton administration's plan called for a limited, single-layer system relying on ground-based interceptors. …