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Lt. General Robert G. Gard Jr. (USA, Ret.) Headshot

Right-Wing Fear Machine

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The younger and more internet-savvy members of our staff showed me a new video clip last week entitled "33 Minutes." It comes courtesy of the unabashed hawks at the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The title refers to the amount of time it would take an intercontinental ballistic missile or 'ICBM' to reach the United States. Apparently the clip is merely a preview of a longer movie set to be released in February 2009.

Watch it for yourself, but you might want to put the kids to bed first.

Kudos to Heritage for catching the typo they included in the YouTube version at 1:54 - "Balliatic"? - and correcting it on their website. Sadly they forgot to iron out other mistakes of a more substantive nature. I'll leave the mockery to others and stick to three main points.

First, Heritage commits the ultimate faux pas in national security analysis: It proposes a solution that doesn't achieve their primary objective. Robert Joseph, a committed arms racer and intellectual heir to John Bolton, says early on in the video that "my number one concern today is a terrorist with a nuclear weapon." A legitimate fear, to be sure, especially when you consider that the final report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism predicted that such an attack will "more likely than not" occur somewhere in the world by 2013.

The problem, of course, is that missile defense won't stop nuclear terrorism. How exactly will missile defense interceptors in Europe stop a terrorist with a small nuclear explosive device from entering the United States through Canada? Or prevent a shielded nuclear device, invisible to cargo detectors, from being smuggled into a U.S. port aboard a ship? Missile defense, obviously, is useless against these kinds of terrorist attacks.

Second, Heritage is guilty of fear-mongering without supplying the appropriate facts and context. That is the height of irresponsibility. The video begins by stating that over 20 countries have a ballistic missile capability. Yet, as arms control expert Joseph Cirincione pointed out at a congressional hearing on missile defense earlier this year, nearly all countries that possess ballistic missiles today are allies of the United States and possess only short-range missiles that threaten their neighbors, not the American homeland.

Lt. Gen. Henry Obering raises the specter of the United States only having 33 minutes to respond if Iran or North Korea launches an ICBM at us. Unfortunately, this frightening scenario becomes not quite so scary when you remember that neither country currently possesses a missile proven to be capable of hitting the continental United States. Though U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded that North Korea and Iran could develop such an ICBM several years in the future, deploying an unproved and unworkable missile defense system is not the way to change these states' behavior in the meantime. Currently deployed long-range missile defense systems remain an answer in search of a problem.

Third, Heritage praises missile defense for things it can't yet do. The reason for this boosterism is simple: missile defense is a theology, not a technology, for many conservatives. Gen. Obering claims that missile defense technology is so advanced that "we now are able to hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet." Later in the video, however, Kim Holmes confesses that "we do not have enough capability right now to do what we need to do." Well, which is it guys? Does the system work or doesn't it?

In the past nine years, the ground-based midcourse missile defense system has made eight successful intercepts out of thirteen tests. Because the system is still in the developmental phase, all of these tests have been highly scripted - including the "successful" test on December 5. They do not represent what might happen were a missile actually to be launched at the United States. That's why the Government Accountability Office concluded in February 2008 that tests completed to date "are developmental in nature and do not provide sufficient realism" to determine whether the system "is suitable and effective for battle." Our missile defense system still cannot neutralize a missile threat that employs even relatively simple decoys that could be developed by any country able to build complex, long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles.

Robert Joseph opens the video with a cheap shot at President-elect Barack Obama. "Hope is not a good foundation for a national security strategy," Joseph sneers. I'm sure Joseph would point to President Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the Heritage Foundation, as the model for a strong national leader.

What's funny is that in one of the most famous speeches of his administration, Reagan talked about something that offered "hope for our children in the 21st century" and "hope for the future" and "a vision of the future which offers hope." Know which speech it was?

It was Reagan's address to the nation introducing the Strategic Defense Initiative or 'Star Wars,' his flagship missile defense program.

Oops.

Diplomacy, deterrence, and containment have been and will continue to be far more effective than missile defense as protection against a ballistic missile threat to the United States. One should keep that in mind when the Heritage Foundation's movie accompanies a full court press for more money to field an unworkable missile defense system in 2009.