No Missile Shield Could Prevent This

With smoke still billowing like a funeral pyre from the

ruins of the World Trade

Center, cries could be heard for

vengeance against an unseen and unknown enemy who left no return address.

Hunting down and punishing the “folks” who did these things will test the

nation’s patience, although it is far more important to be careful than to be

quick. The thousands of innocent dead deserve justice, which tempers rage with

reason. Should reliable information emerge proving the culpability of Osama

bin-Laden and his protectors in the Taliban, the United

States is fully capable of dealing with

them.

In the days to come, we will hear much speculation about who

is to blame for this atrocity, and fingers are likely to be pointed not only

abroad but at home. The airwaves may soon be filled with torrents of nonsense

rhetoric from politicians attributing fault to their partisan adversaries,

speaking as if they knew how such an attack could have been prevented. They

didn’t, and they don’t.

For the moment-and probably for some weeks

to come-the appropriate attitude for citizens is to support the efforts of

government officials at all levels to cope with the bloody consequences.

If past American responses to acts of terrorism and war are any guide, the

President can expect an upsurge of patriotic support; let us hope he uses that

enhanced authority wisely.

Wisdom, in the wake of a

momentous disaster, means the questioning of prior assumptions, prejudices and

policies. Clearly, we will have to find ways to enhance the security of our

society that don’t destroy the liberty we seek to defend. But there are other

issues to be considered. For George W. Bush and his administration, the ideas

and initiatives that must now be reconsidered can be described as

unilateralism. The notion of the United States as an impregnable fortress, with little need for

treaties and allies, has become outdated again in a single day.

The most conspicuous

symbol of unilateralism is the missile shield, or national missile defense,

whose irrelevance to the present international realities has suddenly been

revealed amid blood and fire. The so-called shield is, as one critic has said,

“a weapon that won’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist.” What happened

on Sept. 11 demonstrated irrefutably that any enemy determined to inflict mass

destruction upon America can do so without ballistic missiles. To insist

on that proposal-at a projected cost of $100 billion-would be to waste time,

money and scientific talent, when all those resources would be better spent on

effective domestic and international security measures.

The apparent capacity of terrorists to penetrate our

airports and airspace forces us to think about the unthinkable. If an enemy can

bring down the World Trade

Center and destroy a substantial

part of the Pentagon, why would we assume that they could not someday drop a

nuclear device on the doorstep of the White House? Attack by such low-tech

means, instead of a high-tech rocket, would elude the missile shield. The only

plausible defense against terrorist use of atomic weapons is to secure nuclear

materials around the globe from those who might misuse them.

Yet so far, the Bush administration has shown little

interest in the programs created for that purpose, notably in the former Soviet

Union. Federal officials ignored recommendations by a bipartisan

panel to sharply increase funding of those efforts, and even considered cutting

them. For a tiny fraction of the price of the useless missile shield, the

unguarded weapons and fissionable elements in Russia

could be removed from danger.

Unfortunately, international cooperation has not been the

outstanding characteristic of foreign policy in this administration or among

its supporters in Congress, to say the least. Their contrarian viewpoint has

been expressed in contempt for American obligations under the Anti-Ballistic

Missile Treaty, as well as for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that was so

carefully designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Treaties and

alliances, they appear to believe, are for weaklings and dreamers, when in fact

such agreements are essential to our own future security. Preventing

proliferation ought to be the paramount objective of American policy, and anything that destabilizes or deflects that aim

must be avoided.

If we are really determined to safeguard our cities and

citizenry, maintenance of our overseas alliances is the strongest shield. A

jetliner could just as easily be hijacked from a foreign airport, and then

flown into an American target, as from Logan or Dulles. Rather than aggravating

our differences with allies in Europe and elsewhere, the

administration should consider ways to strengthen those ties. Many of those

nations have considerably more experience with terror on their soil than we do;

their assistance in combating what may become a continuing assault is vital.

Improved relations with our traditional allies may also help

us to convince them that a more aggressive approach to terrorist organizations

is both realistic and necessary. The likelihood of success against the forces

responsible for this extraordinarily well-executed crime will be considerably

greater if civilized nations are coordinated with equal precision. The ability

of the United States

to lead depends entirely upon the confidence with which other nations regard

us.

These suggestions scarcely reflect the present philosophy of

the Bush administration-with the possible exception of Secretary of State Colin

Powell, whose influence has been waning since the day he was appointed. But Mr.

Bush wouldn’t be the first Republican President to change course when

confronted with previously misunderstood realities. His father’s administration

at first coddled Saddam Hussein, and then led an allied expedition against

Iraqi aggression. Ronald Reagan vowed to build an even more ambitious version

of the missile defense, to the horror of our allies, and then abandoned that

mirage to negotiate historic agreements with the Soviet Union.

In this tragic moment, Mr. Bush too can seize an opportunity

to correct his administration’s course. All Americans should wish him the

wisdom to do so.