by Matthew Lee
Washington (AFP) May 18, 2000 - The United States is prepared to proceed with a controversial national anti-missile shield even if it is unable to get Russian agreement on modifications to a treaty banning such systems, a senior official said Thursday.
Overcoming vehement Russian objections to revising the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty which bans nationwide systems capable of shooting down incoming missiles will be a key issue at next month's summit between President Bill Clinton and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton would not present the national missile defense (NMD) plan as a "fait accompli" at the summit but indicated the president would make a decision later this year on deployment based on US interests.
"If we do not reach an agreement of some kind with the Russians on the changes to the ABM treaty necessary to proceed with a deployment decision ... and if the president decides ... that it is in the national interest to still go ahead with a deployment decision, he will go ahead with a deployment decision," the official told reporters.
Clinton's decision will be based on four well-known criteria -- the system's cost, its technological feasibility, the extent of the missile threat to the United States from so-called "rogue states," particularly North Korea, and its impact on arms control generally.
The objections of Russia, which sees NMD as a threat to itself, as well as those of China and many US allies in Europe, who fear deployment will spark a new nuclear arms race, will be factored into the fourth criteria, the official said.
However, he added, "at the end of the day, the president is going to make his decision on one criterion: What is in the long-term national interest of the United States?"
"He alone will make that decision, he will make it on the basis of lots of factors and lots of advice and lots of views of other people, including the president of Russia," the official said.
Yet, he allowed that Washington had been deliberately vague in specifying how much significance US officials would give to the objections and declined to say what impact they would have on policy decisions.
"Quite carefully, (the president) and everybody speaking on his behalf has not gotten into great detail on exactly how we're going to weight every consideration that will come into play."
The comments follow those of another senior State Department official who said last week that despite objections to NMD, deployment of such a system was almost inevitable.
However, that official was speaking in the context of eventually proceeding with NMD after reaching agreement with Russia at some point on changes to the ABM treaty.
The United States is continuing to lobby Russia for the changes in the ABM treaty despite widespread opposition to NMD and questions about whether the system -- expected to cost tens of billions of dollars -- will work.
And opposition is coming not only from outside the United States.
On Wednesday, three former top Pentagon officials called on Clinton to put off NMD deployment, warning that it was technically risky and would severely affect US relations with Russia and European allies.
Former defense secretary Harold Brown, former deputy defense secretary John White, and former deputy defense secretary and CIA director John Deutch argued instead for developing sea-based systems designed to intercept missiles in their boost phase.
The critique was noteworthy because it showed that doubts about the NMD system extend even to former Clinton administration officials who once oversaw development of the US missile defense systems.
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