For almost three decades it has stood strong, often under attack,
but always prevailing in the end.
Yet time appears to be catching up with the 1972 Antiballistic
Missile Treaty, once considered a cornerstone of arms control
between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Today, more than ever, the ABM Treaty is being criticized and
questioned, even down to the basic point of who is party to it since
the Soviet Union's collapse.
"The future is not about whether the ABM Treaty will be amended,"
says Baker Spring, a leading adviser to the congressional leadership
on arms-control issues, "but whether there will be an ABM Treaty at
But unlike previous attacks on the treaty, which resulted from
President Ronald Reagan's desire to build a "star wars" defense
shield, this one is being joined by Democrats.
Altered playing field
Essentially, the treaty prohibits national missile-defense
systems, for the reason that they would alter the balance of power
between Washington and Moscow and possibly trigger a new arms race.
Yet now the playing field itself has been altered, with new
threats coming from beyond the Soviet Union. Moreover, as technology
has gotten better and better, pressure has built on President
Clinton to move forward with the project. This summer he becomes
eligible to decide to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) that
would protect all 50 states from a limited attack by a "rogue" state
like North Korea or Iran.
On one hand, he doesn't want to kill the popular program, because
it could hurt Vice President Al Gore's chances of winning the White
House. Yet Mr. Clinton also doesn't want to flagrantly violate the
treaty, which specifically bars national missile defenses.
So, instead, White House lawyers are trying to push a watered-
down interpretation of the treaty that would allow the nation to
move forward with the early steps of deployment. In doing so, they
would not have to address the more difficult subject of the treaty's
Their argument is classified and has not been adopted by the
president. But it appears to be based on different perceptions of
the phrase in the ABM Treaty "under construction." Clinton's lawyers
essentially are saying the US can pour cement for a radar site on
the island of Shemya in western Alaska without having officially
"The US is reneging," says John Rhinelander, who, as a State
Department lawyer, was a principal drafter of the treaty.
Another arms-control expert involved in writing the treaty,
Spurgeon Keeny, acknowledges there is ambiguity in the three-page
document, and that by some interpretations the US "could take some
preliminary steps without withdrawing from the treaty. …