WASHINGTON – President Clinton may wonder if next month's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin is really worth the effort. Clinton is trying to pave the way for a limited missile defense system to protect against launches from rogue nations that liberals don't think is needed, and conservatives don't think is enough.
"It's totally inadequate," Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Fox News. "By the time you fire a missile from Beijing to Washington, D.C., and it takes 35 minutes to get here, we have zero, nothing in our arsenal to knock it down. And we've got to correct that ... We need to have a robust system."
Sen. Inhofe and other conservatives like Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and his senior foreign policy advisor Condeleeza Rice have little problem with scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow a missile defense. Rice calls the treaty a "historical artifact."
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, doubts that the treaty is still valid since one partner in the treaty, the Soviet Union, no longer exists.
But some arms control specialists say scrapping the ABM treaty would cause more problems than it would solve. "We're kissing goodbye to a lot of other sorts of important arms control in keeping Russian nuclear weapons safe and secure," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon said that there must be some middle ground between the plans proposed by President Clinton and candidate Bush. "I think the Bush camp is wrong that we need some sort of effort to limit these defenses with Russia ... However, I'm not sure the Clinton administration has the right plan either," O'Hanlon said.
Putin, who was in the United States last week, says even amending the ABM treaty to allow the limited missile defense the president envisions would undermine the framework of U.S.-Russian arms control.
"We believe, and it has been stressed at the highest level, the ABM treaty of 1972 should remain a cornerstone of the strategic stability and the basis for strategic stability in the world," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said at a press conference with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last Thursday.
In its effort to ease Russian concerns, the administration says Moscow can keep the missile system from posing a threat by keeping its own missiles on alert, but arms control experts say perpetuating a launch-on-warning scenario is the wrong message to send.
"This is a terrible idea. This is the sort of dangerous, hair-trigger situation we put up with in the cold war," O'Hanlon said. "But it makes no sense to re-affirm that as a matter of national policy today."
— Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report