Defending the "Peace Shield"


While Others Build: The Commonsense Approach to the Strategic Defense Initiative, by Angelo Codevilla, New York: Free Press, 256 pages, $22.50

Few issues in recent memory have become more of a political and ideological litmus test than Ronald Reagan's 1983 proposal to develop an anti-ballistic missile defense system for the United States. Virtually without exception, liberals have lined up to oppose an ABM system, while conservatives have embraced it as essential to the nation's security. Often the jargon employed by participants in the debate reveals their position even before one examines the substantive arguments. Reagan and his supporters promptly termed the proposal America's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and frequently used the laudatory term "peace shield." Opponents typically refer to the initiative as Star Wars, implying both that it is based on fantasy and that it would mean a dangerous militarization of space. Consequently, both the scholarly and the political debates on SDI have thus far generated more heat than light.

In at least one respect, Angelo Codevilla's While Others Build provides a refreshing contrast to such dreary predictability. Although a staunch conservative, Codevilla is as critical of the Reagan administration and its handling of this issue as he is of SDI's liberal opponents.

His thesis is thoroughly provocative. According to Codevilla, Reagan's rhetorical commitment to SDI substituted political symbolism for the need to make difficult decisions about U.S. strategic doctrine and the potential role of a defense against Soviet missiles. Moreover, the focus on a futuristic system based on yet-undeveloped technology has obscured the fact that existing technology could provide a significant degree of protection. "Both the Reagan Administration and its opponents have tried to avoid making responsible, public choices about ballistic missile defense," Codevilla contends.

Codevilla also disputes the notion that the most dangerous foes of an ABM system are liberal politicians and left-wing ideologues. Instead, he sees a more lethal opposition within the U.S. defense establishment itself, especially among Pentagon officials who have a vested interest in the status quo and regard a missile defense mission as a budgetary competitor with existing programs.

While Americans are mired in an increasingly pointless debate about tangential issues—the technological feasibility of a futuristic SDI, whether the Soviets could counter such a hypothetical system, and to what degree the 1972 ABM Treaty would inhibit the United States from testing or deploying it—Moscow has already developed and deployed missile defenses based on relatively mundane technologies. This action, combined with the Soviet Union's acquisition of counterforce ICBMs, has given that country a dangerous first-strike capability and undermined the ability of the United States to deter aggression or nuclear blackmail directed against the West, according to Codevilla. If the United States wishes to reverse the shift of the global military balance toward the Soviet camp, it must create a new strategic doctrine to replace the long-irrelevant concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD), as well as transcend the doctrinal drift of the Reagan years and begin to deploy ABM defenses.

Codevilla turns in a mixed performance in presenting credible evidence to support these various arguments. He builds a solid case for the proposition that Ronald Reagan did not invent the wheel when he delivered his SDI speech in March 1983. Interest in and work on ABM defenses had a distinguished pedigree going back to the 1950s. Reagan's address was a belated acknowledgment of growing congressional and public support for the concept throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Likewise, it is difficult to argue with Codevilla's conclusion that it is possible now, not merely in the distant future, to create a modestly effective defense against missiles and that early deployment would benefit the American people. Any ABM system, however imperfect, would be far preferable to the current absence of a defense. As it is, even an accidental launch of a few dozen Soviet missiles would inflict horrendous damage on the United States. And the danger to the American population is likely to mount in the coming decades as more countries acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

Codevilla's allegation that Reagan and his advisors opted for the politically appealing SDI as a way to avoid making hard decisions about the republic's strategic doctrine also has the ring of truth. The Reagan administration practiced the politics of evasion on a host of issues, not merely ABM defenses.

Other parts of Codevilla's thesis, however, are less convincing. His view that "nothing in the letter of the ABM Treaty prohibits either signatory from building a good antimissile defense," and that perceived obstacles are the product of a needless intramural debate in the United States, rests on dubious reasoning. He professes to find ambiguous provisions throughout the treaty, but that is due more to an eagerness to discover such elasticity than to any reasonable interpretation of the pertinent passages. For example, he attaches cosmic importance to the treaty's definition of ABM as a system "to counter strategic ballistic missiles" rather than "can counter" or "may be able to counter" (Codevilla's emphasis).

It is one thing to argue that the United States government made a serious error in agreeing to the ABM treaty and that we should not let that document prevent the creation of a system to protect the American people from possible annihilation; it is quite another to contend that a treaty for the explicit purpose of banning ABMs poses no obstacle to the development of such a defense. A more honest approach would be simply to withdraw from that unwise treaty.

Codevilla also fails to support his argument that opponents of an ABM system are motivated by a pervasive moral agnosticism. He asserts that a typical ABM opponent "does not believe that the U.S. government and society stand on a qualitatively different moral plane from those in the Soviet Union, and, therefore, that it is his duty to move earth—if not heaven—to preserve the American way of life."

His allegation is a variation on popular innuendoes that critics of U.S. defense and foreign policies see a "moral equivalence" between Western and communist societies and that those critics are members of a "blame America first crowd." At best such assertions are inaccurate; at worst they are examples of a growing neo-McCarthyism. Furthermore, Codevilla does not present a scintilla of evidence that ABM opponents are animated by a belief in East-West moral equivalence.

But there are more serious problems with Codevilla's analysis. Most egregious is an inadequate appraisal of overall U.S. defense policy and its relevance to the subsidiary issue of missile defenses. For example, throughout the book there is an implicit—and occasionally explicit—assumption that the principal mission of an ABM system is to deter or, failing that, to parry a Soviet first strike. Yet Codevilla is surely aware that NATO doctrine is based on Washington's willingness to breach the nuclear threshold even in response to a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. (The same principle undoubtedly applies to other significant U.S. allies, such as Japan.)

Nor is it true that a U.S. response would involve only battlefield or theater nuclear weapons. NATO's European members have no interest in a strategy that would enable the two superpowers to fight a limited war confined to the continent. The concept of extended deterrence assumes that the United States would be willing to use its strategic arsenal against the Soviet homeland.

NATO defense doctrine, combined with Moscow's continuing conventional military superiority in Europe, means that the United States, not the Soviet Union, would be more likely to launch a first strike. That fact has profound implications for the ABM debate. Would acquisition of an ABM system enhance this country's capability to launch a first strike by guaranteeing that the American population could survive any retaliatory attack from depleted Soviet forces? If so, would such a system be destabilizing, thereby increasing the danger of nuclear war? Is the Soviet ABM program at least partly motivated by concern about the prospect of a U.S. first strike? These and other questions deserve to be addressed, but Codevilla fails to do so.

Indeed, the principal weakness of While Others Build is its pervasive acceptance of America's global security policy as legitimate. That attitude is especially disappointing since Codevilla has elsewhere expressed skepticism about U.S. strategy, most notably about aspects of the commitment to NATO. But in this book that healthy skepticism is absent. He shows no willingness to distinguish between the requirements of primary deterrence (discouraging an attack on the United States) and extended deterrence (discouraging an attack on allies and clients), even though the latter is considerably more difficult and demanding than the former. Nor does he exhibit any awareness that an ABM system might play very different roles in a strategy that jettisoned extended deterrence and one based on that doctrine.

Codevilla's neglect of such fundamental issues is unfortunate, because his narrower thesis that the United States can and should build an ABM system as soon as possible is well argued and compelling. But that system should be built to protect the American people against the omnipresent threat of annihilation, not in some vain pursuit of a way to restore the waning credibility of extended deterrence. In the final analysis, the ABM debate cannot be separated from the increasingly imperative need to reassess the nation's overall defense policy.

Ted Galen Carpenter is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.