DEMOCRATIC CONTROL of the Senate has apparently placed Star Wars in jeopardy, but this may be a blessing in disguise, as there are good reasons to doubt whether it is a good idea in the first place. The fact that our opponents want to kill it should not blind us to evaluating it on the factual merits. The fundamental problem with Star Wars is that the range of circumstances under which it would actually accomplish anything is extremely limited. Star Wars can only be valuable in three ways:
1. Someone launches an attack on us and it foils that attack.
2. It prevents someone from attacking us in the first place.
3. Neither #1 nor #2 happen, but it exercises a generalized favorable influence on our international position.
Outcome #1 is unlikely in the case of major powers, because they have too much to lose by attacking the United States and must presume our retaliation. Their confidence of decapitating our retaliatory capabilities is no better now than it was during the Cold War, and the cost of failure to do so is catastrophic. This leaves rogue states with touchy, irrational leaderships that are sometimes formally in thrall to ideologies that imply rewards for self-martyrdom. But because they lack the overall national resources to make a play for world geopolitical power against the United States, their attacks on us must constitute acts of lashing out for the satisfaction alone, not full-scale strategic assaults. Although a ballistic missile attack from one of them is plausible should they ever have the capability, the best approach towards them is systematic pre-emption of their capabilities of mass destruction. Israel 's 1982 bombing of Iraq 's Osirak nuclear complex, without which we might have had to fight a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, should serve as our model in this regard. Pre-emption has two advantages over strategic missile defense:
1. It pre-empts not only ballistic missiles but all nuclear delivery mechanisms. It is considerably easier to sail a tramp steamer with a bomb on it into New York Harbor than it is to build an ICBM, making this option, about which Star Wars can do nothing, highly attractive to a trouble-making rogue state.
2. It can pre-empt not only nuclear attacks but also chemical and biological ones. The last thing we want is to be proof against nuclear attack only to have biological or chemical agents used against us. The way to prevent these kinds of attacks is to destroy the factories and laboratories where these agents would have to be manufactured.
It follows that we should invest almost without limit in the detection and pre-emption of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction. This is the key mission for our intelligence services for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the pre-emption strategy requires two things that are always in short supply in politics: first, political courage on the part of the leadership, and second, public willingness to take seriously threats that have been averted and disasters that have been prevented from happening. In the short run, this strategy would doubtless produce yapping about "dirty Yankee imperialists" from all the usual suspects, but most of these people will go home and silently thank their lucky stars that Uncle Sam has once again defanged an enemy that was about to bite them. We have seen this pattern before any number of times. Anyone who opposes this must be asked, "Is it your policy to allow rogue states to possess weapons of mass destruction?"
It is crucial to distinguish this strategy of disarming rogue states from the insane warmongering Wolfowitz doctrine (named for Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz) which in effect says disarm everybody who could potentially threaten the United States. We have to re-learn to rely on the fact that any power large enough to threaten us in the grand strategic sense is also large enough to have too much to lose by attacking us. We survived 40 years of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that way. To attempt to deprive other great powers of their capability to threaten us, deprives them of their confidence that they possess a deterrent against our attacking them. If they think that we think we can get away with a first strike on them because we are immune to retaliation, they must assume we are more likely to attack them, putting the balance of terror on a much more delicate trigger, itself a significant blow to our security. This places them in a situation they can never accept and which they must, by the law of self-preservation, rebel against, upsetting the international order. Since the international order as presently constituted is broadly favorable to our interests, it is a mistake for us to provoke this. Provoking the unnecessary hostility of the great powers also makes them more likely to protect the rogue states that are the real problem.
Possibility #2 above (Star Wars deters an attacker) requires not only that someone would have attacked us in the absence of Star Wars, but that its presence will deter them. As just explained, the only serious candidates for an attack are the rogue states, and they are likely to be not so much deterred by Star Wars as encouraged to mount a non-ballistic attack. Therefore Star Wars gains us nothing in this case.
Possibility #3 above (Star Wars exercises an inexorably favorable influence on our international position) is the hardest to predict, given that technological innovations, particularly military ones, frequently have political consequences that are not understood at the time. This is itself a good reason for caution in promoting unnecessary innovations by a well-established power enjoying an international order favorable to its interests. Star Wars' impact on our ability to shrug off threats, like the one China recently made against Los Angeles in response to our promise to defend Taiwan , will be minimal, given that China cannot plausibly risk a nuclear attack on that city, given our retaliatory capability. Furthermore, explicit threats have the intrinsic weakness of revealing who is making them. The only attacks that are immune to retaliation are those made by people who don't care if they get hit back and those made by unidentifiable adversaries. The latter could become a serious possibility in the future if dozens of powers have submarine-launched ballistic missile capability, a possibility that the continual diffusion of technology and industrial might makes very real. However, given that military aggressions are made for political reasons, it is unlikely that an attack could happen that would be permanently mysterious. We merely have to ask: who has reason to attack us at this time? No one can keep a secret that big. Retaliation and pre-emption remain the answer.
Star Wars may tempt our leadership to do things that they would fear doing in its absence. For example, if it were really presumed to work, it would take the discipline of fear out of nuclear brinkmanship. Given how close to disaster we have come even with that discipline, one shudders to think of the consequences.
Far too few people are taking seriously the possibility that Star Wars simply won't work, period. People tend to assume that qua technical problem, Star Wars either:
1. Is intrinsically within our reach if we devote enough resources to it. (The transcontinental railroad analogy.)
2. Has been ruled possible by the appropriate experts on the basis of evidence. (The supersonic passenger plane analogy.)
Both these lines of reasoning, once stated openly, border on the obviously false. #1 forgets that there are a number of technical achievements that our society has been working on for years without success and despite initial confidence. Power generation from nuclear fusion is the most obvious example, followed perhaps by Nixon's War on Cancer. But even less extreme cases, like artificial intelligence (which although not totally barren of achievement has taken decades longer than expected to reach basic milestones) show that in serious technological endeavors we simply cannot always predict what we are getting into. It is entirely possible that strategic missile defense may turn out to be a much harder problem than we now think it is, and for reasons we cannot now think of. We should not be taken in by the spurious confidence resulting from such achievements as the moon landing. Some technical problems work out that way; some don't. This reticence is not an "anti-technology" attitude, because it does not argue against developing what technology we can (such as a theatre missile defense that would not have to be preclusive to be worthwhile) but it does argue against making choices which make us dependent on something that may or may not work. What if it will take us 30 years to achieve Star Wars? Do we still want it? Is it intellectually honest for us to discuss it as if the public can be given what it will be paying for in 10 years or so? The preposterously low estimate of $60 billion dollars (less than four times the cost of the current rebuilding of the main arterial highway through downtown Boston) strongly suggests the public is being fed a rosy scenario to get it to commit the cash, after which it will be asked to cough up more cash in order to not waste what has already been spent. Naturally if the public ever figures this out and blames conservatives, there will be political consequences.
We have not even really begun to imagine the effect of countermeasures against any strategic missile defense we deploy, nor can we, because these countermeasures will be developed by our adversaries and in secret, so we don't know what they are. And since they have not been developed yet, we cannot evaluate a priori our potential ability to respond to them. History has shown that arms races do not simply stop, and we might be wise to remember Tom Clancy's dictum that "in the eternal struggle between warhead and armor, warhead always wins in the end." This is true because warhead does not have to reveal its secrets in advance for armor to prepare for them, and warhead, unlike armor, only has to be lucky once, or a small percentage of the time.
What is worse, we will never know whether the system we have developed really works or not until a real attack occurs. Any competent engineer knows that no matter what one does in the laboratory, the only dispositive test of a system is real life. No elaborate mock-up we can ever rig will be able to duplicate every possible unknown trick and countermeasure our adversaries may have up their sleeves. And I don't mean to be unkind, but we are talking about the same aerospace industry that produced the space shuttle Challenger and the two Apollo failures. So we could spend tens of billions and still be uncertain whether or not we are secure. It follows that we will not be able to make our possession of Star Wars into the foundation of any policy, because we won't be able to count on it. We will have the worst of both worlds: all the burdens and risks of having it, plus the burdens and risks of not having it. Investing all that time, money, and political will into pre-emption and retaliation would buy far more security.
But worse even than the threat that Star Wars won't work is the threat that it will, because the ultimate problem with Star Wars is that it is potentially the strategic foundation of world government. In the absence of Star Wars, the natural evolution of the world's future strategic balance will almost certainly be towards a multi-polar international system. Such systems can be stable for long periods of time, as in 1815-1914 Europe. And if the world remains fragmented in terms of military power, world government in the serious sense of sovereign coercion will not be feasible. But if the United States acquires the means to silence all other serious strategic military competitors, and then either places that power at the disposal of a world state or assumes that mantle itself, the strategic foundation of world government is in place. It is an axiom that political sovereignties expand or contract to fill the capability to defend them, and if we acquire the power to rule the world, we may end up doing so, whether or not this is in our interests and whether or not this world-state can be kept on an American leash indefinitely. World government will inevitably result in the liquidation of the United States and our rule by foreigners with no loyalty to us or our values, the ultimate ironic outcome for the most powerful nation in the world. So unless we want to end up this way, it is time to recognize that paradoxically enough, more power does not always translate into more security. It follows that Star Wars is unnecessary to begin with, dangerous if it doesn't work, and even worse if it does. So let the Dems kill it. Even they deserve to do something useful for once.