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Jewish World Review June 12, 2000/ 9 Sivan, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Missile Defense Destiny -- AS PRESIDENT CLINTON sends envoys to the Middle East in desperate search of a legacy, he seems unaware that his lasting foreign policy legacy is already established. He established it last week in Moscow, despite himself.

The summit that the world rated as inconclusive in fact sealed Clinton's legacy as the president who made an American missile defense a reality. Ronald Reagan was father of the idea. But Clinton in Moscow--with the invaluable and unwitting assistance of Vladimir Putin--became its midwife. For the first time in American history, a missile defense is now inevitable.

As in the case of Clinton's great domestic legacy--the abolition of welfare--the initiation of an American anti-ballistic missile system is not exactly what Clinton intended to do as president. Nor is it the way he would prefer to be remembered.

Both acts were undertaken with little conviction and much political calculation. Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996 on the election-year advice of Dick Morris and against the deeply held convictions of his liberal supporters (such as Peter Edelman, who then resigned from the administration).

Clinton has now expressed support for a limited ABM system to give his anointed heir, Al Gore, the political cover he needs to fend off traditional election charges of Democrats being soft on defense.

True, the Clinton idea of a few dozen missiles in Alaska to shoot down North Korean nukes is static, inflexible, inadequate and far too expensive--exactly the kind of system lifelong opponents of ABM would design. Nonetheless, Clinton went to Moscow having to make a case for it. And once you make the case for it, you have made the case for missile defense in general. And with that, a generation-long Democratic taboo came to an end.

And the Clinton trip broke the taboo on an international scale. Here was a Democratic president--leader of the party that for 17 years has religiously opposed any missile defense, the very notion of missile defense--making the case for it across Europe.

Putin opposed the Clinton proposal, of course, and they came to no agreements on nuclear weapons. But the very failure of the summit on this issue put missile defense on every front page in the world and raised its stature immensely, far more than its proponents could ever have done.

Putin then went one better and undermined his own anti-ABM position by offering a counterproposal in Italy the very next day after meeting Clinton: Russia would join in building a different kind of ABM system (it would shoot down rockets on the way up; the American system would shoot them on the way down) that would provide "a 100 percent guarantee of the security of every European country."

Putin was trying to outflank the United States by portraying it as selfish, interested only in protecting itself, while Russia would magnanimously extend a shield over all of Europe. But that was very shortsighted. By proposing any kind of defensive system, Putin was acknowledging the threat of ballistic missile attack and the need for a defense. He thus removed the central prop of his government's position that missile defenses threaten international stability.

True, the official communique issued by Clinton and Putin repeated the usual nonsense that the 1972 ABM treaty--a treaty that its own creator, Henry Kissinger, has declared hopelessly obsolete--constitutes "the cornerstone of strategic stability."

And true, top Clinton advisers still believe it. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the guiding force behind these arms control negotiations, said just a week before the summit that "our intention is to keep the ABM treaty very much part of the foundation of the international arms control. We don't want to see the ABM treaty violated. We don't want to see it weakened. We want to see it strengthened."

I am sure he wants to. But the game is up. The administration cannot escape the reality it created: Once you have gone around the world saying that America must defend itself, you can hardly call for strengthening the treaty that prevents us from doing exactly that.

On missile defense, Clinton in Moscow was Nixon in China. To be sure, Nixon made the opening to China wholeheartedly. Clinton's opening on missile defense is half-hearted, grudging and politically expedient.

But history does not remember intent. History remembers outcome. And the outcome of the Moscow summit is that a missile defense for the United States is now a fact. The only question is what kind and how fast.

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