Reagan's Real Reason for SDI

By Davis, Mark W. | Policy Review, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Reagan's Real Reason for SDI


Davis, Mark W., Policy Review


"But it is inconceivable to me that we can go on thinking down the future, not only for ourselves and our lifetime but for other generations, that the great nations of the world will sit here, like people facing themselves across a table, each with a cocked gun, and no one knowing whether someone might tighten their finger on the trigger."

President Reagan, 1983

SEVENTEEN YEARS have passed since the fortieth president revealed his vision of a strategic missile defense to a national television audience. In those intervening years, from Ronald Reagan's first term to Bill Clinton's last term, the foreign and defense policies of the United States have remained hostage to a glacial domestic debate over national missile defense. Liberals remain hardened in their opposition to any sweeping "Star Wars" proposal, which they believe would offer little security, wreck the current arms control regime, and stimulate other nations to redouble their efforts to hit American cities. Conservatives, though they have scaled back much of Reagan's original plan, have made his basic idea the centerpiece of their vision for national defense in the twenty-first century. Though there is agreement between both major political parties to go forward with some defensive measures, U.S. policy makers and politicians remain so deeply divided over the issue of how far to go that it is far from clear that even the 2000 presidential election will break the policy stalemate.

Meanwhile, though the United States is far and away the most powerful nation in the world, the world is becoming more dangerous. Kashmir is now a nuclear flashpoint. North Korea has lobbed missiles over Japanese airspace. Within a few years or even months, it is likely that Asia will be girdled by nuclear powers, from Israel, just over the narrow expanse of Jordan to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea. The bipartisan Rumsfeld Commission, after reviewing highly classified intelligence data, concluded in 1998 that North Korea alone could project a threat deep into the interior of the United States -- an arc of vulnerability sweeping from Phoenix, Ariz., to Madison, Wisc. -- in as little as five years.

For the most part, it has been Republicans who have worried about the national and personal implications of living in such a world. They have challenged the willingness of Democrats to trust the survival of American cities to the goodwill and rationality of dubious leaders in Baghdad, Tehran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere. They worry that American families are about to lose Franklin Roosevelt's "fourth freedom" -- the freedom from fear. They believe that America's internationalist foreign policy will be blunted once small states can deter our forces and intimidate our leadership.

However, the GOP falls short by not providing a foreign policy context in which its defensive system would operate. Republicans have not come to grips with the likelihood that even at best, an advanced sea-based or space-based system would remain in constant technological competition with efforts to defeat it, and powerless before cost-effective biological warfare. They have not accepted that the value of such a system would remain dubious if, in the decades to come, Moscow and Beijing continue to respond to it as a mortal threat.

Republicans have faced up to some facts, but not to others. Republicans have been unwilling to explain how global efforts at nonproliferation would work within the context of a strategic defense. Their unwillingness to come to grips with the complexities of their vision renders the Republican approach somewhat chimerical.

It is time for both liberals and conservatives to move beyond the partisan choice between a strategic defense and global arms control to a discussion about how each can reinforce the other. The time has also come to think in the broadest terms -- to seek ways to develop a strategic defense to protect all nations and thereby begin the long and arduous process of eliminating the threat of weapons of mass destruction to all civilization. …

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