After bashing it for months as a Cold War relic, Bush administration officials are hinting that they may not dump the controversial treaty that limits the U.S. ability to build a national missile defense shield--at least, not right away.
Senior U.S. officials have begun pointing out that they can continue development of the shield for two years, and perhaps longer, without running afoul of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. And they are stressing they don't want the controversy over the issue to damage diplomatic relations and, in particular, want to explore whether they can craft an understanding with Russia.
Some observers believe the administration's statements mean that the White House wants to leave the treaty temporarily untouched--and keep diplomatic conflict at a minimum--while the Pentagon starts building a rudimentary antimissile system. Others read into them suggestions that the Bush national security team may be reconsidering its commitment to a project that entails controversy, high cost and difficult new technologies.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after the meeting that he sees a "clear change in emphasis" suggesting that the government's interest in missile defense "is no longer unconditional."
Levin said that although President Bush expressed the view during the presidential campaign that "the treaty be damned--we want to deploy now," the view has become "We want to test, and if it's effective, we would seek to deploy." He said he believed the new attitude was becoming clear even before Bush faced opponents of his plans during his first presidential trip to Europe last week.
Asked about Levin's assertions, a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Tim Taylor, declined comment. Officials at the National Security Council did not respond to calls.
The United States and the Soviet Union wrote the ABM agreement in 1972 based on their view that barring the countries from building antimissile systems would prevent a further arms race in nuclear missiles. The pact prohibits countries from having a single system that could protect its entire territory; it also imposes limits on testing and development that include mobile antimissile systems.
In a TV interview Sunday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the treaty "was designed for a different strategic situation than we have today."
But he noted that "the exact timing and how we would actually get out of the constraints of the treaty remains to be determined. . . . We will get out of the constraints of the treaty when those constraints do not allow us to move forward with our technology," he told "Fox News Sunday."
On ABC-TV, he said that if the treaty "allowed us to do what we needed to do and have to do to provide for a limited missile defense, it would stay in effect forever. But it doesn't."
Even so, he said that "we're not looking for a way to break the treaty."
Any decision to delay termination of the treaty risks alienating conservatives, especially in Congress, who view the treaty as a bond used by a weak country to restrain a stronger one. They have pushed the administration to dump the treaty and commit to building a large system.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a principal advocate of missile defense, stressed in an interview his belief that the administration should not delay abandoning the treaty. "It's antithetical to the very idea of testing," he said.
The president and other administration officials have said they want to explore the possibilities of an ambitious system that could include components on the ground, in the sea, in the atmosphere and in outer space. Conservative missile defense advocates have long pushed to commit the United States to the project, and administration officials have said they would like to build the system by 2004, before Bush's term ends.
But they are behind in picking an architecture for the system, though they have enlisted defense contractors and a range of experts for advice. Boeing, the lead contractor on the program, has proposed dozens of possible architectures, including a rudimentary system of five interceptor missiles in Alaska.
Philip E. Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief weapon inspector during the Clinton administration, said that, judging by public statements, "it looks to me like their position on the treaty has shifted somewhat."
"It appears that they realize they don't have to [abrogate] right away, and it looks as if they'll take the time," he said in an interview.
Coyle said the Pentagon can continue with years of work before it will bump up against treaty restrictions. It could take four years, for example, before the Navy could get to the kind of tests of its Aegis sea-based antimissile system that would be barred by the treaty.
Other analysts said they viewed the statements of administration officials as ambiguous.
Thomas Donnelly, deputy director of Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank, said he didn't know "quite how to read those smoke signals."
It could be that, in delaying abrogation, administration officials intend to first work to win support for their plans overseas. Or it may be that Cheney was simply trying to be diplomatic with Levin, who just became chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he said.
John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control advocacy group, said there are "somewhat conflicting signals" from the administration about missile defense, probably indicating divisions among senior officials.
But he said the ambiguities in the administration's intentions will be clarified in the next week, when officials are to deliver their defense budget for the fiscal year that begins in October.
The long-overdue document will show how much the administration intends to increase its $4.5-billion missile defense budget and whether it might even begin production of some hardware to try to meet the 2004 deployment goal, he said.