It may be no accident that the Bush administration timed the release of the Osama bin Laden videotape on December 13 to coincide with the announcement later that day to unilaterally junk the once sacrosanct Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the first abrogation of an arms control treaty since the end of World War II.
Of course, Bush’s desire to withdraw from the arms accord and move forward with his Star Wars scheme was an open secret. Signed in Moscow in May 1972, for the past 30 years the ABM treaty has served as a hallmark of arms control measures, limiting the development of a ballistic missile system that would give one superpower a decisive nuclear advantage over the rest of the world.
But in the nonstop spasm of coverage of the war in Afghanistan, the media gave the withdrawal scant attention, despite the fact that these nuclear machinations may have much more dire consequences in the long run than the war on terror. Indeed, the retreat from the ABM treaty is just the latest act of unilateral intransigence by the Bush team.
In recent months, the United States has single-handedly brought negotiations on the Biological Weapons Convention to a halt; refused to reconsider the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and boycotted the CTBT review conference in New York; rejected the International Criminal Court; walked away from the Convention on the Prohibition of Landmines; eviscerated the U.N. conference on small arms; and thumbed its nose at the Kyoto accord on global warming.
Even when Russian President Vladimir Putin ventured to the ranch in Crawford, Texas for a back-slapping pow-wow with Bush in November, the emphasis of the press coverage was on the cozy new relationship between the two leaders, eliding Putin’s persistent warnings that any move by the United States to abrogate the ABM treaty risked jump-starting a new nuclear arms race. Similar cautionary missives have been regularly sent out by the other nuclear states, including China, England and France. But the Bush team simply shrugs their shoulders at international critics. With the early success of the war in Afghanistan, the need to court a multinational coalition is over.
In the end, the Russian response was curiously muted when Bush finally made the announcement that the United States would abandon the treaty. Why? A top Bush official told the New York Times, “It’s not like Putin is going home empty handed.” The implication is that the pullback from the ABM treaty is only the beginning of a move to unravel other arms agreements, such as START II. “Russia may now withdraw from the START II treaty, freeing itself from the ban on the deployment of missiles with multiple warheads,” Ret. Lt. Gen. Vasily Lata, the former deputy chief of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, told the Moscow Times. “It would serve Russia’s security interests well.”
Under START II, signed in 1993, both countries agreed to cut in half the 6,000 warheads each was allowed under START I. By abandoning START II, Russia could transform its single-warhead Topol-M missiles into multiple warhead weapons, packing three nukes into each missile.
Even though the trashing of the ABM treaty has been near the top of the Pentagon’s agenda since his inauguration, Bush cloaked his move in language that invoked the events of September 11. “I have concluded that the ABM treaty hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks,” he said. Typically, the president refused to answer any questions from the press about the decision.
One would have thought that the September 11 attacks, where box-cutter knives were used to transform commercial aircraft into flying bombs, would have ended all talk about the efficacy of a missile defense system — no matter how many billions are spent on it — to counter threats from “rogue nations” or “terrorists.” It is a measure of the current Bush allure that the president has been able to move with barely a whisper of protest to defend against a ballistic missile threat that doesn’t exist.
On the very day the Bush administration announced its plans to pull out of the ABM treaty, the Pentagon conducted another test of its Star Wars system. It ended in spectacular failure, with an interceptor missile veering wildly off-course before it was destroyed. Of course, each failure — and there have been many — is an excuse for yet another test and a new round of contracts with defense firms. And here we arrive at the crux of the matter. At $60 billion, Bush’s scheme represents the biggest Pentagon gravy train to come along in decades. And this administration has let it be known that it won’t allow any treaty, no matter how venerable, to stand in the way of that big a feast at the public trough.
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