My fellow Americans, tonight we’relaunching an effort which holds thepromise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks,and results take time. But I believe wecan do it. As we cross this threshold, Iask for your prayers and your sup-port.—Ronald ReaganAddress to the NationMarch 23, 1983Ronald Reagan’s introduction of theStrategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983sparked tremendous controversy. Althoughthe national missile defense (NMD) programbeing considered today bears little resem-blance to Reagan’s “Star Wars” program—which sought to defend against a full-scaleSoviet nuclear attack—the tenor of the debateis relatively unchanged 16 years later. Missiledefense remains a contentious issue, withadvocates and detractors so passionate intheir convictions that NMD sometimes re-sembles a theological, rather than a publicpolicy, issue. Unfortunately, devout ideo-logues on both sides of the issue often sacri-fice reasoned dialogue in favor of dema-goguery.Proponents of missile defense, especiallyconservative activists, often portray NMD as abenchmark issue separating politicians whoare serious about safeguarding U.S. nationalsecurity from those who would undermine it.Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for example,said of President Clinton: “We have a presi-dent that vetoed the DoD authorization billbecause he doesn’t want to spend moremoney on defending America against ballisticmissile attack. And now you can come to onlyone conclusion. . . . We need a new president.”
Proponents of missile defense often painta “doom-and-gloom” picture of the sit-uation. According to Republican NationalCommittee Chairman Jim Nicholson, nothaving the ability to defend against a missileattack could become the “most important[security] issue of the 2000 election . . . I don’tthink people in the country fully realize theenormity of the threat we’re facing.”
Radioads in Nevada paid for by Empower America,to garner support for legislation to deploy anational missile defense as soon as possible,are another example: “We are only one voteshy of ensuring the safety of you and yourfamily. But the people standing in the way areNevada’s own senators,” according toRepublican stalwarts William Bennett andJack Kemp.
Since the inception of the SDI program,the United States has spent at least $45 billionover a 15-year period to develop a nationalmissile defense system. Although the efforthas yet to be successful, supporters believethat it is simply a question of money andpolitical will. According to Senator ThadCochran (R-Miss.), there has been no com-mitment from the White House and thus:“There’s been no real incentive to push ahead,to use all the assets, resources and technologyavailable.”
Opponents of missile defense, on the otherhand, depict NMD as an outrageously expen-sive boondoggle that may destabilizethe strategic nuclear balance. An
editorial posed the question:“Why waste billions on a system that will notwork, to defend against a threat that does notexist?”
hasbeen even more caustic: “Some members of Congress apparently see outer space as a black hole, to be filled with your tax dollars.”
Why such ire on both sides of the issue?First, NMD—like SDI before it—has becomesomething of a political and ideological lit-mus test. Virtually all conservatives supportNMD and virtually all liberals oppose it.
Second, even though NMD differs greatlyfrom Reagan’s original SDI proposal, manyopponents of NMD intentionally blur the
NMD sometimesresembles a theo-logical, ratherthan a publicpolicy, issue.