The Earthling

Bush’s Anti-Logic Shield, Part 2

President Bush reports that European leaders are warming up to his missile-defense plan now that he has gone over and explained to them “the logic behind the rationale.” Now, whatever you do, don’t try to examine the phrase “the logic behind the rationale” logically. I tried, and the results. Instead, let’s focus on, as it were, the logic behind the rationale—the case Bush made to European leaders as he summed it up for reporters afterward.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—a keystone of the policy of deterrence—was “a product of the Cold War era,” Bush explained. Back then “the United States and Russia were bitter enemies and the whole concept of peace was based upon the capacity of each of us—each country—to blow each other up.” But now we face new, post-Cold-War threats. “The new threats are threats based upon uncertainty. The threat is that somebody who hates freedom or hates America or hates our allies or hates Europe will try to blow us up.”

Wait a second. That’s a new threat? But wasn’t one great fear during the Cold War that Soviet leaders hated freedom and hated America and hated our allies and would try to blow us up? Isn’t that why we put lots of thought into developing a system that would keep them from acting on their hatred—the system of deterrence by assured retaliation, the system that Bush now considers outmoded?

I don’t want to sound pedantic, or to unduly complicate presidential  thought processes, but if Bush wants to argue that differences between the Cold War and the current era warrant a shift in policy, then he should point to some ways in which the two eras are different. And having enemies who are bent on our destruction is not a difference. 

It’s true, as Bush notes, that today our enemies are no longer Russians. Then again, the logic of deterrence didn’t rest on any distinctive Russian cultural traits—good ballet, plentiful vodka—but rather on a generic human trait: not wanting to die. This is a trait that over the ages has been shared by people as culturally diverse as Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein, and Genghis Khan. 

Like countless other sentient beings, I’ve made this criticism of the basic argument behind missile defense before. Why do I keep repeating it? Because President Bush keeps repeating the basic argument. Because he is so maddeningly oblivious to the actual criticisms of missile defense that people are making. Because he never bothers to explore the logic behind his rationales.

More pedantry: Lest readers impute liberal bias to this column, let me briefly critique the logic of someone who is not, to my knowledge, a conservative Republican—namely, the editor of this journal, Michael Kinsley. He recently squared off with Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on missile defense. I will wisely refrain from taking sides in this debate between two esteemed and influential colleagues (except to note that Mike is right and Charles is wrong), but I would like to scrutinize one sentence in Kinsley’s column.

Krauthammer had addressed a question commonly asked by people like me: What is the  point of having a missile shield if America’s enemies can just float a bomb up the Hudson River in a barge or put one in a suitcase and drive it across the Rio Grande? Krauthammer made the familiar response: Just because you can’t address all threats doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address any threats. 

Kinsley replied that, granted, “the fact that your house may burn down is no reason not to lock your door against burglars.” But “locking the door really is close to pointless when there’s a wide-open window right next to it. The suitcase bomb problem is more like the second situation: The existence of an alternative means that even a successful missile defense would just shift the risk, not reduce it.”

Kinsley is being too generous to Krauthammer’s argument. Comparing a ballistic missile attack to a burglar’s entering your home through your door suggests that, in the absence of missile defense, a ballistic missile would be the most natural way for Saddam Hussein to get a nuke into the United States. But in reality (as I’ve noted before) the suitcase bomb is the preferred means of entry even in the absence of missile defense. Launching a nuke-tipped missile would get Hussein killed, since everyone would know where the missile came from, whereas anonymously sneaking a bomb into the United States wouldn’t get Hussein killed.

So, missile defense doesn’t “shift the risk,” but rather addresses a phantom risk while leaving the real risk unaddressed. Missile defense isn’t like locking the door and leaving the window open. It’s like locking the window and leaving the door open. In fact, it’s like locking a third-floor window that has a greased ledge and is directly above a pool of alligators and then leaving the door open. Or, to put an even finer point on it: Missile defense is like paying someone $100 billion to lock a third-floor window that has a greased ledge and is directly above a pool of alligators and then leaving the door open. We’re still waiting to hear the rationale behind this logic.