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Bill Clinton did us all a favor when he punted the decision about building national missile defenses on to the next president. Clinton's plan was a loser, aimed at protecting us from an unlikely attack by a rogue state like North Korea. The president's punt, I hope, will give the next White House occupant the chance to review whether missile defenses will really make Americans safe.

But there is something about the whole subject of missile defenses that seems to make politicians lose their common sense. Maybe it's the lure of billions in new defense contracts. Maybe it's the Reagan-esque mirage that U.S. technology can build a Gardol shield around America. Maybe it's the Democrats' fear of being called soft on defense. Whatever it is, the presidential campaign seems set to shed more heat than light on the subject of missile defenses.

The premise of both parties' missile-defense plans is that danger comes from so-called rogue states such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq, which could deploy ballistic missiles within 10 to 15 years. For some reason, the rogues won't be deterred from nuclear blackmail by the threat that the United States would pulverize them if they ever attacked.

That premise seems dubious. But say it's true; will missile defenses make us any safer against nuclear attack? The Clinton/Gore plan -- a limited, land-based system located in Alaska -- wouldn't have done so. With ineffective technology, it aimed to shoot down a handful of missiles in mid-flight. Leading scientists said that the U.S. interceptors would be easily fooled by chaff or decoys.

Missile-defense opponents concede that there is a more promising technology that might be able to destroy enemy missiles when they are ascending in boost phase. At that point, they are slower, hotter and easier to hit. Boost-phase technology is worth exploring -- and Clinton's decision gives the next president time to do so. Any boost-phase defense must be launched from fairly near the enemy missile's launch site, probably from ships or special barges off the shore of the rogue country. Such an approach might work with North Korea or Iraq.

"Boost phase" is a popular buzzword with Republicans. But deploying boost-phase defenses wouldn't necessarily make Americans safer. A boost-phase deployment would oblige a U.S. leader to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which forbids either side to build missile defenses.

The ABM pact was designed when Moscow and Washington feared that building missile defenses would spark a new arms race as each side built more weapons to penetrate the other's shield. Now Republican missile-defense advocates insist the ABM treaty is an outdated Cold War relic.

Yet unhappy Russians may be more dangerous to America's safety than rogue nations like North Korea. The most serious nuclear threat to the United States is the thousands of Russian nuclear weapons that remain on hair-trigger alert. As we know from the Kursk submarine disaster, Russian safety procedures have crumbled.

Unhappy Russians won't take their weapons off alert and may even halt U.S.-Russian cooperation in dismantling of many of their nuclear weapons. In other words, building missile defenses might increase the risk of a nuclear accident involving Russia. This is one reason why our European allies have opposed U.S. missile defenses.

U.S. intelligence reports also warn that building a U.S. missile-defense system might prompt China to speed up its nuclear modernization. This speed-up, in turn, might induce China's nuclearized neighbors, India and Pakistan, to do likewise.

A thorough review of boost-phase defense might find ways to alleviate some of these dangers. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed interest in boost-phase defenses. The Russians might be persuaded to join in a cooperative boost-phase project.

But a cost-benefit analysis must be made -- one that doesn't skirt the possibility that missile defenses may create more nuclear danger than they offset. Clinton's punt has given the next president the chance to get the equation right.

Philadelphia Inquirer

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