Kim Jong Il’s decision to test launch seven missiles—one with the capability of reaching U.S. soil—in many ways smacks of a spoiled brat left alone in the school playground screaming for attention. With the whole world focused on the Middle East and the growing specter of a belligerent and aggressive evil Iranian regime, the tin pot dictator could no longer be ignored.
“Me! Me!,” cries the toddler, as he launches his own fireworks show on our Fourth of July.
While there is no doubt that North Korea’s leader has acted, at least partially, out of a deep-seated need for recognition, the provocative actions of the communist leader raise deadly serious issues: A madman wants the capability to equip a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead and fire it toward our soil.
This threat is reviving an old debate in Washington, D.C.—funding for a viable missile defense capable of thwarting attacks from rogue states like the one tyrannized by Kim Jong Il.
Ronald Reagan first proposed a missile defense to neuter the threat of nuclear weapons during the Cold War in 1983. Since then, an unfortunate lack of progress has ensued. Between 1999 and 2005 interceptor tests have accumulated a disappointing 50 percent success ratio. But despite this limited capability, Pentagon officials are prepared to work with what they have.
Indeed, the Pentagon is preparing “contingency plans” wherein interceptors would be launched from Alaska or California in response to a North Korean missile launch in America’s direction. But these “contingency plans” are anything from foolproof, and you can be sure, given recent events, that this issue will be a hot one when Congress returns from its July 4th recess.
Precursors to a coming renewal of the missile-defense debate were visible even before North Korea’s provocations. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions offered an amendment on June 22 that would add $45 million to the Pentagon’s missile-defense program. The Sessions amendment amazed observers by passing 98-0. The unanimous passage was out of character for the Democrats who have fought increased funding for missile defense for decades.
Also, on the June 26 Fox News Sunday show, Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told host Chris Wallace that we should “anticipate that such missile defenses that we have now in place—and it’s been a struggle through the Congress to get the money to put these defenses in—they will be utilized to the extent they can.”
Warner’s reference to struggle in Congress was a jab at the Democrats. The ranking Democrat on Warner’s Committee —Carl Levin, who was sitting adjacent—did not respond. After all, Levin has been one of the chief opponents of missile defense, most recently leading a failed effort to defund the program by $50 million.
This effort to kill a national missile defense was just the latest in a long series of similar attempts. When President Bill Clinton took office in 1992, it took his administration only about 100 days to announce the death of President Reagan’s vision for a national missile defense, and the Democratic House of Representatives was happy to go along. In fact, in subsequent defense budgets House Democrats proposed even less funding for any sort of missile defense than President Clinton did.
This war on a national missile defense has had real consequences. As my colleague Mike Franc points out in a recent column, “Had President Clinton and Congress not abandoned the missile defense architecture first outlined in 1991 by the Bush Administration, our ability to intercept missiles such as North Korea’s Taepo Dong or Iran’s SHAHAB-3 would be measurably greater … the architecture they proposed—interceptors for both medium and long-range missiles, a more robust network of sensors, and space-based interceptors known as “Brilliant Pebbles”—would have been at least partially operational today.”
The fact that the current administration has even limited missile defense options today is a wonder. As Fox News Reporter Major Garrett points out in his book, The Enduring Revolution, it seemed for a while that hopes of a missile-defense shield of any kind may die. “The idea stayed alive only because congressional Republicans persistently advocated ballistic missile defense at a time when the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, wanted to kill it,” writes Garrett.
Because Republicans won back the House in 1994, they were able to confront Clinton on the issue. But, continues Garrett, “That confrontation did not lead to large increases in spending or even dramatic shifts in policy. But it did lead to a gradual shift in the political climate in favor of swifter development and deployment of a national missile defense system.”
But now congressional backers of a robust ballistic missile defense have the upper hand. North Korea’s July 4 provocations have reenergized the debate and have illustrated the need for a system that works. Democrats who have opposed the program for decades now must explain to the American people why they would rather fund liberal social programs than a missile defense shield that could intercept a nuclear warhead aimed for American soil.
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