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Going Ballistic Going Ballistic

Going Ballistic

by Peter Henne
October 16, 2009

America doesn't need a missile defense system in Europe, or this new fear-mongering film.


With the relative silence of Dick Cheney in recent months, American political debates have been disturbingly absent of abject scare tactics (besides the occasional invocation of "death-panels"). Thankfully, the Heritage Foundation-a conservative think tank-has filled this vacuum with a "documentary" on missile defense. Entitled 33 Minutes, the soon to be released film purports to tell the "brutal" "truth" that a ballistic missile, launched from anywhere on earth, could strike the United States in a mere 33 minutes. But what this movie actually does is frighten viewers into supporting a ballistic missile defense system that is costly, ineffective, and undermines President Obama's efforts to craft a realistic policy to counter the threat of nuclear weapons.

But first thing's first. What is a ballistic missile defense system? To paraphrase comedian David Cross, it's "a net made of magic, held in place by pixies." While that might not be completely accurate, it's not too far off. The idea behind ballistic missile defense is to shoot down our enemies' missiles. Whether that enemy is Iran or the old Soviet Union, B.M.D. is designed to make it impossible for adversaries to attack the United States with missiles. It may sound like beautiful idea on paper, but it's not so impressive in practice.



Nevertheless, B.M.D. has entered the pantheon of right-wing idols, along with gun rights, lower taxes, and Fox News. Although a Republican-Richard Nixon-initially limited U.S. use of B.M.D. with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Republicans have long argued that a lack of B.M.D. is an unconscionable infringement of U.S. sovereignty and will ultimately lead to the downfall of America. Ronald Reagan famously launched his Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," to develop space-based missile defense systems, and Congressional Republicans continued to push for a B.M.D. system during Clinton's presidency. George W. Bush stayed the course, pulling out of the A.B.M. treaty early into his term and increasing efforts to install a B.M.D. system in Eastern Europe, which Russia interpreted as a threat.

A B.M.D. system may not increase U.S. security at all. The ability to shoot down incoming missiles would make our potential rivals-namely Russia and China-uneasy. Even if B.M.D. worked, such nations could simply build more missiles to overwhelm the system. And making B.M.D. work is a big challenge. The physics involved in shooting down a missile flying at a speed of 2.5 miles per second are incredibly complex, and we have yet to develop a reliable B.M.D. system despite the billions of dollars that have been spent.

On taking office earlier this year, President Obama attempted to change this situation.  In April, he gave a stirring speech calling for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. This was accompanied by concrete actions in September, when he announced that the United States would cancel the planned Eastern Europe missile system. Instead, we would implement a ship-based missile system to focus exclusively on a possible Iranian missile launch. Obama's altered missile defense system should also greatly decrease tension with Russia, which will help us pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

Obama, then, is committed to protecting America from the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Adapting Bush's B.M.D. initiatives to develop a more effective system is integral to these efforts. Yet the Right's obsession with B.M.D. led to vociferous opposition to Obama's plans. Republicans have accused him of "appeasing" Russia, abandoning allies in Eastern Europe and, ironically, "empowering" Iran. It is as part of this broader conservative campaign-a political attempt to paint Obama as weak on national security and reinstate a costly and ineffective program-that 33 Minutes must be understood.

This film has all the hallmarks of a well-funded fear baiting. Ominous music provides a backdrop to sound-bytes on ballistic missiles. Facts of questionable accuracy are combined with statements so vague as to appear concrete. One quote, taken from ArmsControlWonk's transcript of the film, illustrates this perfectly:

"It's very difficult to guess the number of states that will have ballistic missiles in ten years. If one follows a straight line projection, the number gets quite large."

33 Minutes will leave viewers anxious about their security, fearful of apparently-imminent ballistic missile strikes, and no more informed about B.M.D. than they were before. And that is exactly what Heritage wants. As long as Americans remain ill-informed about B.M.D., convinced that any sign of weakness will result in Iranian missiles raining down on us, we cannot have a true debate.

Obama is crafting a foreign policy that will decrease unnecessary antagonism with other nuclear states, limit nuclear proliferation, support allies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and, most importantly, protect America against the threat of nuclear attacks. Simplistic fear-mongering like 33 Minutes will do little but undermine these common sense goals and harm America's security interests.

LEARN MORE Read the primer on missile defense from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Peter Henne is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, and a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. His writing has appeared on Huffington Post, Real Clear World, The Moderate Voice, and the Washington Post's "On Faith."

Photo from the Missile Defense Agency

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