Frame Game

Strategic Missile Debate

Should the United States worry about a nuclear strike on one of our cities by a rogue nation in the next few years? Can we build a system that would shoot down such missiles? If so, should we spend tens of billions of dollars on a limited system or hundreds of billions on a more ambitious plan? Would Russia and China retaliate by building up their nuclear arsenals to overwhelm our defenses? The 2000 presidential campaign has now turned to these important questions. George W. Bush proposes to build a complete missile-defense system while making major cuts in our nuclear arsenal. Al Gore proposes a lesser defensive system combined with less drastic reductions. Here’s how they’re framing the issues.

1. Goal vs. process. Bush focuses on numbers and timetables. He talks about how many missiles we need (a lot fewer), how much missile defense we need (a lot more), and how fast we can get there. Gore argues that we should focus less on reaching numerical targets than on moving carefully and nurturing the arms control process. “Reductions alone do not guarantee stability,” says Gore. “It is how reductions are made and how they interact with defensive systems that makes the difference.”

2. Leadership vs. cooperation. To Bush, individual initiative is virtuous. He says he’ll sharply cut U.S. nukes no matter what the Russians think of it. This, he repeatedly argues, demonstrates “leadership.” He promises to “seize the moment” and “lead by example” rather than wait for “years and years of detailed arms control negotiations.” To Gore, this kind of spontaneity is dangerous. Along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Gore uses the word “unilateral” as a pejorative. “Nuclear unilateralism will hinder, rather than help, arms control,” Gore argues. “Strategic stability can never be a one-way street.” Instead, Gore recommends “cooperation,” “negotiation,” and “agreements” with Russia and other nuclear powers.

3. Change vs. stability. Bush loves to talk about how “new” his ideas about nuclear defense are. He’s got a “new vision,” a “new concept,” and a “new approach.” He says Clinton and Gore inexcusably “delayed” building a missile defense. Bush wants as big a missile defense as possible, at the “earliest possible date.” Newer, bigger, faster, better. Gore rejects this equation. His principal buzzword is “stability.” Gore shuffles verbs to make Bush’s proposals look like destructive change, as opposed to the constructive change advocated by Gore. Bush’s plans would “destroy the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,” which “is the cornerstone of strategic stability in our relationship with Russia.” Gore’s plans, on the other hand, would merely “adjust” the treaty.

4. Defense vs. threat. Bush and his Republican supporters see missile defense as an issue separate from and morally untainted by the question of U.S. nuclear weapons. “These are defensive systems. They harm no one,” pleads Sen. John McCain. Gore, however, sees the two issues as dynamically linked, on the theory that a stronger U.S. missile defense reduces the retaliatory power and thus the deterrent effect of Russian nukes, leaving Russia naked to a U.S. strike. Arms reductions, according to Gore, must be considered in terms of “how they interact with defensive systems.” Likewise, Albright says the United States must “try to make sure that the offensive and defensive weapons systems continue to be linked to each other, not to separate” them.

5. Persuasion vs. anticipation. In the Kosovo war, congressional Republicans argued that NATO military action was unwise because the Serbs would react aggressively. Clinton and Gore took the opposite view: Rather than allow the Serbs to impose consequences on NATO, NATO would impose consequences on the Serbs. We, not they, would set the terms. In the missile-defense debate, these roles are reversed. Gore argues that the Bush missile-defense plan is unwise, because “the Russians have made clear that their response to a powerful U.S. defensive system would be to halt arms control and increase the numbers of their offensive nuclear weapons.” Bush rejects the assumption that Russia will necessarily retaliate. He believes that the United States can set new terms and persuade Russia to react differently.

Bush’s persuasion plan has two elements. First, he’s going to convey his peace-loving sincerity to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I’m going to look him right in the eye and say, ‘You’re no longer the enemy, and we’re not your enemy,’ ” says the governor. Bush adds that he will “clearly state the intentions of the United States, that we’re a peaceful nation and that we look forward to working together with Russia to keep the peace.” Second, he’s going to “invite” and “convince” Putin to go along. “We should invite the Russian government to accept the new vision I have outlined, and act on it,” says Bush. “I would work closely with the Russians to convince them to do the same.”

6. Urgency vs. hand-tying. Clinton is pressing the missile-defense issue with Putin because the United States has set a timetable that requires a decision by the end of this year in order to build a system capable of shooting down a rogue-state missile by 2005. But Bush thinks Clinton’s system is insufficient, and he worries that Clinton will cut a deal with Putin limiting the missile-defense plan in exchange for modifying the ABM treaty. This puts Bush in an awkward position. While pleading for the “earliest possible” deployment of his own system, he accuses Clinton of “driving toward a hasty decision, on a political timetable. No decision would be better than a flawed agreement that ties the hands of the next president and prevents America from defending itself” with a more robust missile defense.

The arguments in this debate are as hard to keep track of as the missiles. Eight years ago, Clinton and Gore were posturing about boldness and change, while Bush’s father was defending the virtues of patience, steadiness, and diplomacy. It was Bush’s father, too, who struck an agreement on missile reduction in the last year of his term, tying the hands of the next president. And it was Richard Nixon who signed the ABM treaty that tied everyone’s hands. But that didn’t stop Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, from showing up at a press conference two weeks ago to tout George W. Bush’s plan for dumping that treaty. Shooting down each side’s verbal barrage is hard enough without its multiple warheads.