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Missile defense needed in a dangerous world


The experience of the Cold War made most people complacent in the belief that no country would launch weapons of mass destruction if, in turn, they would be faced with a retaliatory strike. Now, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have made us and our allies realize that we could be attacked by terrorists at any time with weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological or nuclear -- the terrorists don’t care if they lose their lives in return.

The most immediate danger of the combination of weapons of mass destruction and fundamentalists willing to commit suicide arises from the situation in Pakistan.

Since independence in 1948, Pakistan has lost three major wars to India. The main conflict has been over the territory of Kashmir whose majority population is Muslim. Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan as a source of training for “freedom fighters” to carry out terrorist operations against India -- a Faustian bargain designed to pressure India to give up Kashmir. Now, Pakistan faces both an unstable Afghanistan and a hostile India determined to end the Pakistani-supported insurgency.

With both Pakistan and India possessing nuclear weapons, it will be a test of whether deterrence -- which enabled the USSR and NATO to avoid direct conflict during the Cold War -- will be able to prevent an escalation that would include the launch of nuclear weapons. Even if the current crisis fades, Islamic fundamentalists in Kashmir seem bent on keeping up the pressure through suicide attacks. Such attacks may cause Pakistani troops stationed on the Afghan border to be redeployed opposite India, aiding the escape of al Qaida members from Afghanistan, and they could also lead to a toppling of Pakistan’s secular government and a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists.

A major war between India and Pakistan may be avoided. Nonetheless, there is a strong possibility that a fundamentalist Islamic regime could take over Pakistan’s government and gain control of that country’s nuclear weapons. In such a case, I believe the United States would go all out to deploy a missile defense system, however rudimentary, to the Indian Ocean region.

In the Middle East, there is also the problem that Palestinian terrorist groups could get access to weapons of mass destruction from countries such as Iraq or Iran. Unlike the fundamentalists, Saddam Hussein will not risk making himself a target by overtly using weapons of mass destruction unless his country was about to be overrun.

While he used poison gas against his own defenseless people and against Iran in the 1980s, in the 1991 Gulf War Saddam launched only missiles armed with conventional warheads at Saudi Arabia and Israel. He knew that if Iraq launched missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction, the United States, Britain and probably Israel would retaliate overwhelmingly in kind. However flawed the U.N. sanctions policy has been since the war, it has been designed to prevent further Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction, which, according to press reports, continues apace. I see two pressing concerns.

The first is that Iraq may clandestinely make these weapons available to fundamentalist Palestinian groups. In the Jan. 7 New Yorker magazine, David Remnick writes of his interview with a Hamas leader. The latter said: “We will be happy to take any square meter of land from the Israelis -- the West Bank, Gaza -- that they are prepared to give us.” Remnick asked: “What are your real goals?” The Hamas leader replied: “What is the final goal of Islamic peoples everywhere? It is to establish an Islamic state in Palestine, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia -- everywhere under a single caliphate. There is no role for a Jewish state in this.”

The second concern is that if the West were to withdraw its military presence in the Persian Gulf area, then Saddam would again use his weapons of mass destruction to conquer or threaten his neighbors to force them to acquiesce to Iraqi hegemony. Part of the rational to deploy U.S. missile defenses is to check any Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction to defeat a potential Western attempt to impose a meaningful countrywide inspection regime on Iraq. The debate raging in Washington today is over whether to continue to try to contain Iraqi expansion through enforcing the no-fly zones and through a revised and more effective sanctions policy or to take pre-emptive military action against Iraq.

I believe that if the situation in Pakistan remains stable, Iraq will probably be the next arena of major U.S. military activity. If the United States were to mount a military campaign against Yemen or Somalia, or in the Philippines, it would not involve a large amount of military force.

The underlying problem is that Islamic fundamentalists can see no separation of church from state and, until they do, Western civilization is not only incomprehensible to most Muslims, it is anathema. We Catholics know from history that it was our own church’s fundamentalism that prevented Catholic countries from integrating monetary theory -- our hierarchy banned the lending or borrowing of money for interest (usury) -- and from integrating scientific advances -- Galileo’s discovery that the Earth orbited the Sun.

For the future, unless Islamic states can integrate their economies with the West and forego the need to have religion dictate secular affairs, their people will suffer deprivation, and the resentment of that will be transferred to the West. This will continue to foster activities to gain revenge. Until secularization of these states occurs, we and our allies must guard against the danger of fundamentalists acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, there is the problem of how the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty will affect relationships between Russia and the United States. Many analysts believed that the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would significantly raise tensions. Unlike Islamic fundamentalists, President Putin has seized the opportunity to take one of those radical swerves toward the West that occasionally occur in Russian history. He has stopped competing in terms of domination and has indicated that NATO can expand into the Baltic States without serious objection. Moreover, he seeks to integrate Russia’s economy with the West. Russia has increased its oil and gas exports, lessening Western dependence on Middle East oil. In turn, the Bush administration will reduce its nuclear weapons and will continue to cooperate to secure Russian nuclear materials, reducing the opportunities for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, I believe if U.S. deployment of missile defenses is not codified in some sort of agreement with Russia and is not limited in a way that ultimately preserves the Russian nuclear deterrent against the combination of U.S. offensive and defensive forces, prospects for conflict will increase as Russian realization grows that their country will be increasingly vulnerable to a U.S. first strike with nuclear weapons.

Charles N. Davis served as an anti-submarine warfare pilot in the Navy in the late 1950s. Through the early 1990s, he was an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002