At long last.

It's been nearly 20 years since President Ronald Reagan unhinged the chattering class by observing that Mutually Assured Destruction -- MAD, for short -- wasn't so smart. That protection was better than obliteration; that developing SDI systems to protect Americans, our troops abroad, friends and allies made more sense than deploying more MX systems to threaten more innocent Russians.

President George W. Bush on Tuesday gave Ronald Reagan -- and America -- a jumbo Christmas gift when announcing that, yes Virginia, there is missile defense (at least, will be). That it's no fantasy, like Santa, but a real system -- one which begins initial deployment inside two years time.

As Reagan told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during our harrowing weekend together in Reykjavik in October, 1986, such a system would now -- will -- make the world more secure.

Even after all these years -- and mounting evidence that having the worst weapons fall into the worst hands is too dangerous for us to bear -- some critics just don't get it.

Sen. Carl Levin, the outgoing chairman of the Armed Services Committee who's been fighting the program with increasing ferocity and decreasing rationality, condemned Bush's action as violating "common sense by determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown to work."

Not to be outdone, Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, was quoted: "The appropriate analogy is to the emperor's new clothes. They're in the middle of research and development and still lack many of the elements needed for the system. The danger also is that they're not going to do the other things they should be doing to deal with emerging threats, like negotiate with North Korea and get a handle on the spread of fissile material."

Like negotiate with North Korea?

Like that hasn't been tried, and failed, so many times. Counting on the good graces of the likes of Kim Jong Il, maniacal tyrant of North Korea, or Saddam Hussein, maniacal tyrant of Iraq, to protect America, is ludicrous.

Some ideas are so stupid that only an intellectual could have thought of them, as George Orwell once quipped. Notions of relying on negotiations with North Korea, or Mutually Assured Destruction, fall comfortably in that box.

Likewise for the critics' claim that there's been insufficient research and testing of missile defense. I was with President Reagan when first briefed on promising technologies, more than 20 years ago now. Granted, many opportunities were thwarted by our overlong adherence to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. Nonetheless, an impressive amount of progress has been made.

Missile defense will not only protect us against incoming missiles. It can also relax the triggering of an immediate nuclear response. It can furnish a president more opportunity to weigh options other than massive -- and probably immoral -- retaliation. It also can ease the need for pre-emptive military action to avert a nuclear onslaught by a fanatical regime, something on the order of what the civilized world would face with a nuclear-armed Saddam.

The system the Bush administration chose to deploy has a decent track record. In the majority of tests thus far, it has intercepted and destroyed incoming missiles.

As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rightly pointed out at his news conference Tuesday: "You have to put something in place and get knowledge about it and have experience with it, and then add to it over time. I mean, there isn't a single weapon system we have that hasn't gotten better successively over a period of time that I can think of."

Lt. Gen Ronald Kadish, head honcho of the missile defense program, put it snappier than his boss: "Test, fix. Test, fix. Test, fix is what we're doing."

And that's what's smart to do.

The breakneck pace of technological change nowadays demands that upgrades be done after the system is implemented. To wait until a modern weapon system is perfected, and then mass produce it -- the old way of procurement -- is to wait forever. Or to smother the program in its crib.

Herein lies a dirty little secret. The critics don't really want a perfect missile defense system -- one fully researched and tested. They want no missile defense system.

They want the likes of negotiating with North Korea and/or Mutually Assured Destruction to protect us.

"Once you deploy a system, you've really stuck a stake in the ground and it makes it very hard for a new administration to undo it. This is irreversible," said James Lindsay, a critic with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mr. Lindsay surely didn't mean it as a positive statement, but let's hope he's right. That would make Bush's Christmas gift even better.

Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of TechCentralStation.com.

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