"Nothing ever gets settled in this town," George Shultz once said of Washington. "It's a seething debating society in which the debate never stops, in which people never give up, including me."
Well, we may be seeing an exception to Shultz's Law. After 15 years, the Democrats have apparently given up their opposition to a "star wars" missile defense for the United States. A law committing the United States to building such a defense passed Congress by overwhelming majorities. And President Clinton, who had vetoed such legislation in the past, will sign it.
This was no Democratic conversion to toughness. This was Democratic acquiescence to blinding reality. The reality is that:
(1) Rogue states such as North Korea and Iran are building nuclear missiles soon to be aimed at the United States, and
(2) The United States is utterly defenseless to shoot them down.
For the better part of this decade, the Clinton administration has denied both ends of this reality. First, it claimed that the threat was distant. Less than a year ago, Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton testified that we would have ample warning if any country indigenously developed long-range missiles.
Unfortunate timing. Not a week had passed before North Korea shocked the world by launching -- over Japan -- a missile with long-range capability. And the Pentagon now warns that North Korea is on the verge of testing an even newer missile of even more frightening range.
The administration now recognizes that its own CIA estimates of the threat were hopelessly wrong and that the congressionally mandated Rumsfeld Commission was right when it warned last July of the imminent capacity of rogue states to develop the means to attack the United States.
The other feat of reality-denial involved American defenselessness. Democrats liked to argue, alternatively, that American defenselessness is (a) paradoxically a good thing or (b) divinely -- technologically -- ordained.
Defenselessness was good because it made for "strategic stability" with the Soviet Union. Perhaps. But the Cold War is over, and there is no evidence that Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein or the next ayatollah will be deterrable by "mutual assured destruction" the way Leonid Brezhnev was.
Alternatively, defenselessness was inevitable. Why? Because missile defense could not work. As late as March 18, in House debate, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) echoed conventional Democratic Luddism by asserting that antiballistic "hit-to-kill technology is nowhere near feasible."
More unfortunate timing. Less than three months later, on June 10, an Army THAAD missile intercepted a ballistic missile launched from 120 miles away. This was precisely what Baldwin claimed was unfeasible: destruction by collision, a bullet hitting a bullet.
Reality bites, even for Democrats. Thus John Holum, Clinton's nominee for the State Department arms control post, testified Monday that that Democratic totem, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prevents us from building a missile defense, would no longer be allowed to stand in the way: "The decision on [ABM] architecture will be made based on the threat, based on security considerations. . . . We're not saying . . . tailor the defense to fit the treaty." Which they had been saying for more than a decade.
Finally, rationality. Or is it?
Is Clinton really serious? Former Pentagon expert Frank Gaffney, an ABM hero who has campaigned on its behalf for 15 years (we should name the first system after him), warns that a recent Clinton-Yeltsin agreement to renegotiate the ABM treaty has the makings of a trap.
The ABM treaty, amended or not, can only hinder the building of an American defense. For example, because of the administration's interpretation of the treaty, THAAD could only test against a missile going no more than five kilometers per second. But North Korea's new missile goes seven to eight kilometers per second. This THAAD won't catch up to it.
Even worse, the ABM treaty prevents the Navy's Aegis ships (which could carry mobile ABMs) from using satellite information to track incoming long-range missiles. This deliberately and unnecessarily degrades the Aegis system, our best hope for a cheap, fast, near-term national defense.
The answer? Withdraw from the ABM treaty. No more negotiations, no more "clarifications," no more compromises with the Russians over an obsolete treaty designed to hinder and dumb down ABM defenses.
Is Holum's testimony the real deal? Or will Clinton resume, subtly, his ABM obstructionism -- and vindicate Shultz's Law -- by letting ABM treaty negotiations hamper an American defense?
If Clinton does indeed backtrack, Republicans should strike, hard. Bring this question to the coming election: Why are the Democrats allowing a clearly antagonistic Russia, which just last week buzzed Iceland, to use a defunct treaty to prevent us from defending your children (a nice Clintonesque touch) from nuclear attack from the likes of North Korea and Iran?