A new front has recently been opened in the attack on President Bush's defense and foreign policies and in particular, on the stewardship of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
One of Miss Rice's former subordinates, Richard Clarke, has made news (and presumably millions of dollars) contending the Bush team failed to comprehend — and do enough — about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
Now the president's critics claim he compounded that error by squandering time, energy and money pursuing defenses against a far more distant threat from ballistic missiles.
For example, The Washington Post reported breathlessly last week that in a speech prepared for delivery (but not given) on September 11, 2001, Miss Rice had planned to discuss the danger the country faced from missiles equipped with weapons of mass destruction. Here, it seemed, was proof ideologues in the Bush national security apparatus had their eye firmly and exclusively on the wrong ball, leaving the nation ill-prepared to deal with more prosaic threats — like hijacked, fuel-laden passenger planes flying into buildings.
Wait a minute. In fact, the undelivered Rice speech makes clear the Bush administration was quite concerned about the threat of terrorism in the United States and around the world. As she put it: "We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway."
From their earliest days in office, Mr. Bush and his subordinates pursued initiatives carried over from the Clinton administration, including improved security against truck bombs, shipborne weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and bioterrorist threats. In addition, the National Security Council's Mr. Clarke was laudably beavering away at another grave danger: the possibility of cyber-strikes aimed at the computers that enable America's critical infrastructure.
What Condoleezza Rice argued, however, was it made no sense to "put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of Mace and then decide to leave your windows open" to enemy attack. That, she correctly contended, would be essentially the effect if the Bush administration were to perpetuate its predecessors' practice of leaving the country undefended against missile-delivered WMD.
In the years following September 11, President Bush has, to his lasting credit, provided the leadership, resources and latitude necessary to put into place at least limited anti-missile protection. Most importantly, he withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an archaic Cold War document that some (notably, Sen. John Kerry) foolishly considered the "cornerstone of strategic stability" even a decade after the other party — the Soviet Union — had ceased to exist. Without the myriad impediments posed by the ABM Treaty to developing and deploying competent missile defenses, getting them put into place became a relatively straightforward matter of time and technology.
Indeed, the Bush team now is poised to begin fielding, for the first time since 1974, anti-missile defenses for the American people. A relatively rudimentary capability will be brought on-line in coming months as a small number of interceptor rockets become operational at a site in Alaska.
Unfortunately, the urgency the Bush administration properly attaches to getting at least some protection against the one form of terror for which we currently have no defense is now the object of most intense criticism. A left-wing organization, the Council for a Liveable World, circulated an open letter signed by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. William Crowe and 48 other retired flag officers denouncing the deployment of anti-missile defenses in Alaska without more testing. The signatories claim that the money could be better spent on other antiterror priorities.
Meanwhile in the Congress, anti-antimissile-defense legislators led by the Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, insist on more "realistic tests" before defenses are put into place. According to press accounts, Mr. Levin is determined to go after some $500 million in the defense budget associated with deployment of future anti-missile interceptors.
The reality is that, as Condi Rice intended to say on September 11, 2001, we cannot afford to leave any avenue of attack open to our enemies. The threat of missile strikes could come not only in the future from places like North Korea, or for that matter China, armed with long-range, WMD-equipped ballistic missiles. It could arise at any time from a terrorist group that has managed to strap a short-range SCUD-type missile launcher onto a ship and sail it undetected within a hundred miles or so of an American coastal city.
If fault is to be found with the Bush administration, it is not that it is doing too much, too fast on missile defense. It is not doing nearly enough to bring quickly to bear other seagoing, airborne and most especially space-based anti-missile systems. Such a diversified approach would not only provide the most robust protection possible against various kinds of missile attack. It would also minimize the danger a President Kerry will be able easily to replicate an ill-advised action led 30 years ago by his most prominent supporter, Sen. Ted Kennedy, who succeeded in shutting down what was at the time America's single ground-based missile defense site in North Dakota.