WASHINGTON – The closer the Clinton administration gets to deploying a national missile defense, the farther it seems to get from persuading other countries — even some of its allies — that it is a good idea.
At the Munich Conference on Security Policy over the weekend, Defense Secretary William Cohen heard words of doubt from some European members of NATO and outright opposition from Russia and China.
Wang Guangya, China's deputy foreign minister, told the conference on Sunday that "a certain country" — leaving no doubt he meant the United States — was pursuing an antimissile capability "in an attempt to seek absolute security for itself."
That notion is similar to a concern Cohen heard expressed less pointedly by some European officials at the gathering in Germany. They said they feared that if the United States alone gains the capability of defending its borders from long-range missile attack, it will create a "two-tier" system of security with the NATO alliance.
Cohen responded that the United States will do what it believes necessary to protect itself from potential missile attacks. "And we would certainly think that it would be advisable for others to consider what measures they can take to protect their people," he said Saturday.
That go-it-alone approach is not generally what alliance partners like to hear from their U.S. ally, which throughout the Cold War was the guarantor of European security against the Soviet Union.
Cohen was careful to point out that President Clinton has yet to commit the United States to actually building a missile defense. Although the Pentagon has spent tens of billions of dollars pursuing technologies in recent decades, it remains unclear whether a reliable system is within reach.
Clinton is scheduled to decide this summer whether to go ahead with deployment of a network of radars and interceptors designed to protect all 50 U.S. states against a limited attack by ballistic missiles. A key factor in his decision will be the outcome of an interceptor test scheduled for this spring. If the test fails — as did the last one in January — deployment almost certainly would be delayed.
The Pentagon was expected to announce Monday that the administration's 2001 budget proposal includes an additional $2.2 billion for missile defense, pushing the cost of deploying a limited system to $12.7 billion.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who was among a dozen members of Congress who attended the Munich conference, said the Europeans are wrong to think the missile defense project spells trans-Atlantic trouble.
"But I can see how they could reach that conclusion," he added in an interview. The Europeans, as well as the Chinese and Russians, are aware that even though the Pentagon says the antimissile system would be limited in scope, some in Congress are eager to expand it.
Asked how the Europeans he spoke with seem to feel about the U.S. project, Biden said, "Mystified. They wonder, `What's this really about? Is this just the beginning? What's the deal?'"
In China's view, the U.S. pursuit of missile defense is part of a broader American effort to impose its will on the rest of the world, not only through military might but also economic dominance.
Russia holds similar suspicions about American motives. In remarks to the Munich conference, Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov from the international relations department of the Russian General Staff accused the administration of exaggerating the immediacy of missile threats from Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
Ivashov asserted that Russia and China are the real targets of U.S. missile defense, drawing a retort from Cohen.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," the defense secretary said. The reason for deploying antimissile defenses, he said, is to protect U.S. territory against a small-scale attack by North Korea, Iran or Iraq.
Cohen went so far as to predict that in the next five to 10 years, those three countries "will be able to hold all of NATO at risk with their missile forces."