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Breaking treaties is a reckless tactic

This month Bush administration zealots put the rush on to force the nation to begin building a questionable and dangerous missile defense shield. The proposal, which for starters would throw $100 billion at a “Star Wars” scheme, is all out of proportion to the threat it purports to answer and threatens to revive the lunacy of the Cold War era.

How much more beneficial it would be to earmark the missile money for public needs such as health care and education reform.

The shield is questionable because it throws water on a fire that does not yet exist -- and might never exist if only our nation preferred diplomatic solutions to war preparations. The defense shield is like installing a $10,000 alarm on a front door while leaving all the other doors and windows open.

The shield is dangerous because its installation would abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, the platform for three decades of nuclear arms control efforts.

The Bush administration would have Americans believe that the ABM treaty is a Cold-War relic. It is not. For decades, the treaty has restrained competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to build increasing numbers of offensive missiles. Since the Cold War’s end, it has allowed Russia and America to dismantle portions of their nuclear arsenals without fear that they would be unable to respond effectively to a surprise attack.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that U.S. violation of the treaty would force Russia to augment its nuclear capability by mounting multiple warheads on its missiles. At the same time, Putin suggested that both the START I and START II treaties would be negated by the U.S. abrogation of the treaty. The termination of these treaties would also eliminate verification and inspection requirements and allow Russia to hide its nuclear capabilities. The White House should take Putin’s warning seriously. Even a cash-strapped Russia could afford to add hundreds of multiple warheads to new and existing missiles.

China, too, opposes Bush’s missile defense plan. The Moscow-Beijing friendship agreement, the first in 50 years, signed just last week, is the result in good measure of common opposition to the Bush missile defense shield initiative.

There was a time, early in the Cold War, when nuclear treaty proponents were attacked by the right-wing warriors who said: “The Russians can’t be trusted.” Fortunately, we went ahead with treaties. For four decades the treaties have kept the world from falling into the brink of massive self-destruction. They have served national and world needs.

Now come reckless calls to abandon a treaty. Simply doing so, calling it a relic of the Cold War is arrogant, shortsighted and reckless. If the United States can break a treaty at will, can it be trusted to sign others? If it can break a treaty at will, can it hold others to treaties that serve U.S. interests? Without deep respect for international treaties, the road ahead becomes treacherous.

We see finger-pointing and hear plenty of talk in Washington as our leaders refer to the threats of “rogue” nations. Rogue? It may be time to take another look in the mirror.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001