Missile Defense: Defending America or Building Empire?

The new national security strategy put forth by the Bush administration (a.k.a. the “Bush Doctrine”) claims that “new deadly challenges have emerged from rogue states,” including a “greater likelihood that they will use weapons of mass destruction against us.” One of the responses to this threat is the “development of an effective missile defense system.”

At the same time, the Bush Doctrine claims that the United States must “stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.” A preemptive attack policy is explicitly endorsed.

Given that this new strategy calls for acting “against such emerging threats before they are fully formed,” a question is: Why does the United States need a missile defense against rogue states? One answer is: Preemption may fail or may not be undertaken, so missile defense may be a necessary hedge to help protect the United States. Another answer is: The rationale for missile defense is to protect U.S. forces so they can engage in military intervention throughout the world.

The need for missile defense is often based on a “doom and gloom” picture painted by advocates: Americans are defenseless and hostage to the threat of ballistic missile attack. When President Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, he said that “defending the American people is my highest priority as Commander in Chief, and I cannot and will not allow the United States to remain in a treaty that prevents us from developing effective defenses.”

But the rhetoric conceals the real reason for missile defense. According to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), responsible for developing a missile defense system, “The fundamental goal of the planned BMD [ballistic missile defense] system is to defend the forces and territories of the United States, its Allies, and friends as soon as practicable.” Thus, the purpose of missile defense is extended well beyond protecting America and Americans. Perhaps the clearest indication that defending the United States is not necessarily the primary objective of a future missile defense system is this statement by MDA about the threat: “The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic and cruise missiles that could deliver them pose a direct and immediate threat to the security of U.S. military forces and assets in overseas theaters of operation, our allies and friends, as well as our own country.”

Why the great concern about ballistic missiles that cannot reach the United States? Because, according to the new national security strategy, “the presence of American forces overseas is one of the most profound symbols of the U.S. commitments to allies and friends. Through our willingness to use force in our own defense and in defense of others, the United States demonstrates its resolve to maintain a balance of power that favors freedom.”

Indeed, the new national security strategy calls for making the world “better” by “expanding liberty” throughout the world based on American values of “political and economic freedom, peaceful relations with other states, and respect for human dignity.” Regardless of how it is dressed up, this is a strategy of American empire — however benevolent, noble, and well intentioned. And, ultimately, that is what missile defense is all about.

But what rarely seems to occur to strategists of empire is that the result will be increased resentment and animosity toward what is perceived by the rest of the world as an imperialist America. It is popular to think that other countries and people hate the United States for “who we are” and that this was the reason for 9/11. Radical Islamists may have a deep-seated hatred for the United States. But the reality that is largely ignored is that U.S. policies and actions are significant factors in triggering terrorist attacks beyond any hatred of America.

That anti-American animosity is fueled more by “what we do” rather than “who we are” is reinforced by various polls around the world. And those views are not confined to Arab or Muslim countries that might somehow be predisposed to disliking the United States — many in Europe feel the same. However, the obvious conclusion is lost on American policymakers: The United States must stop meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and regions around the world except when U.S. national security interests are directly threatened, i.e., when the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk, or it becomes necessary to prevent the emergence of an expansionist hegemonic power. More importantly, such a change in national security strategy directly comes to grips with the fact that because terrorist attacks are virtually impossible to deter, prevent, or mitigate, U.S. security would be better served by not engaging in unnecessary military deployments and interventions that fuel the flames of vehement anti-American sentiment.

Given a strategy of less, rather than more, military involvement and to the extent that a missile defense is technically feasible — proven to be operationally effective (via realistic testing, including against decoys and countermeasures) and affordable — a limited land-based ballistic missile defense system designed to protect the U.S. homeland makes sense. After all, that is the primary responsibility of the federal government. But it is not the responsibility of the United States to protect friends and allies, especially when many of them are wealthy enough to pay for their own missile defense if they think it’s important for their own security.

Ultimately, the missile defense sought by the administration is a global shield for a quixotic crusade using military force to build a safer and better world based on American rules. But this strategy will have the perverse effect of making the United States less secure by sowing the seeds of hate and vehement anti-American sentiment under the guise of expanding liberty. Such actions could result in recruiting more terrorists and inciting more terrorist violence. And a missile defense, no matter how effective, will not protect Americans from terrorists using easier and cheaper means to inflict mass casualties — witness 9/11

Charles V. Peña

is director of

defense policy studies

at the Cato Institute.