It is understandable that at first glance the idea of a national missile defense system is appealing. It promises perfect safety, rendering obsolete the madness of nuclear deterrence based on mutual assured destruction. If the system were to work, the threat of some enemy from across the ocean pulverizing New York City’s eight million inhabitants would vanish. We’d be invulnerable, magically shielded from our worst nightmares. Why, it would be the ultimate sign of national invincibility, the dream of every sun king since ancient Sumer.
It’s all false advertising. Have we learned nothing from the history of putatively infallible defense systems—from Spartan phalanxes and Hittite horsemen to France’s Maginot Line? A missile defense system represents the ultimate human delusion, as if by virtue of this mechanical fetish we could secure the status of immortal gods—immunity from accident, contingency, finitude and death. The whole idea is compelling only because it taps so deeply into our capacity for self-inflation and idolatry. “The thing that makes man the most devastating animal that ever stuck his neck up into the sky,” wrote the late social psychologist Ernest Becker, “is that he wants a stature that is impossible for an animal; he wants an earth that is not an earth but a heaven, and the price for this kind of fantastic ambition is to make the earth an even more eager graveyard than it naturally is.”
Forget for a moment that a missile defense system will unravel the 1972 A.B.M. treaty with Russia, and that Beijing has announced that if the U.S. pushes ahead on this project China will increase its nuclear missile force tenfold. Why are we doing this? Is it because North Korea, Iran or Iraq pose an immediate threat? Not at all. In fact, the best security analysis suggests that if we’re worried about chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction, the least likely carrier is surely a long-range ballistic missile launched by an outlaw nation. The more likely threat will come from an anti-American terrorist who will deliver the deadly package by ship, plane, van or suitcase. (Think of the raid on the U.S.S. Cole or the Sarin gas released in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.) Consequently the most cost-efficient way to counter threats would be to increase funding for long-term efforts against terrorists like Osama Bin Laden by improving intelligence resources, preventing Russia and China from exporting nuclear and chemical weapons technology, heightening border security and training local police and health care personnel to respond effectively to deadly biological and chemical agents.
The real reasons for missile defense have little to do with actual threats from rogue nations, whose missile launch sites we could easily take out with a pre-emptive strike. They have to do, first of all, with a familiar domestic political game, the Republicans’ habit of accusing Democrats of being “soft on defense” (which is why the Clinton administration was pursuing missile defense), and then one-upping the alleged wimps with a huge raise in the Pentagon budget. Second, missile defense means colossal corporate welfare (good if the economy is headed for a recession). If you look at the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission, which recommended full speed ahead on missile defense, you will notice that the panel was stacked with men, hardly disinterested, whose companies stand to make hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, from the project.
The final absurdity is that the Bush administration is rushing to spend hundreds of billions even before anyone knows, by successful field tests, that missile defense is feasible. Two out of three tests thus far have failed. The outgoing head of the Pentagon’s weapons testing, Philip E. Coyle III, warned in December that though the current antimissile push has merit, the project has barely begun to make headway against the technical hurdles. “The hard part,” Mr. Coyle stressed, involves making the interceptors work in “realistic combat conditions,” where the enemy’s feints and surprises would include not only decoys but nuclear explosions in space that would emit powerful radiation designed to destroy antimissile systems. In one report after another Mr. Coyle found the program’s tests unrealistic, the decoys and countermeasures both too few and too simple.
A national missile defense system is a folly whose time has apparently come. Considering the good uses to which these hundreds of billions of dollars might be put—to bring health insurance to 40 million Americans, to build desperately needed public housing for the working poor, to provide retroviral AIDS medicine to sub-Saharan Africa, to end hunger in the developing world...you fill in the blanks—a national missile defense system is an act of hubris that cries to heaven for punishment.