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Strategic Defense Initiative redux

By Bruce Walker
web posted May 7, 2001

President Bush is quite rightly pushing a new version of the President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Remember the system that wouldn't work? The weakest link in the three tiered system -- the Patriot Missile -- performed better than expected in Desert Storm. Remember that the concept would provoke a new, expensive arms race? American victory in the Cold War has assured the budget cushion which now makes tax cuts possible. And remember how ending Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) would risk nuclear war? Rather it assured that triggers for Armageddon, like Saddam Hussein, could be dealt with safely by free democracies, while a hapless Soviet Union and a weak China looked on with no real protest.

Stanley Baldwin

Scientists, political leaders, and even military strategists are notoriously unreliable predictors of how future conflict may unfold. Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister of Great Britain during the 1930s, made his famous statement "The bomber will always get through" and if all Englishmen had thought like Baldwin, the prophecy would have become self-fulfilling. Scientists and writers, like H.G. Wells, concurred.

While military historians of the Twentieth Century have been prone to note the Maginot mentality of France, which proved incapable of stopping the mobile forces of Nazi Germany, the real story was how a handful of bold and independent men, sometimes using private funds at great risk, designed and built the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters and implemented the Home Chain Defence (composed -- like Reagan's SDI -- not just of sophisticated elements, like radar, but mundane components, like spotters) just in time to stop the Luftwaffe. As it turned out, the detractors of strategic defense -- the same sort of know-it-all who panned Ronald Reagan and now George W. Bush as "dumb" -- were dead wrong. President Bush, like the Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan will be proven right.

What was proposed in these three strategic defense initiatives? Many components, some of which will work as brilliantly as the Patriot missile or the Spitfire, and some of which will flop. That is the reason why leaders do not place all their marbles in one basket. Would the "Star Wars" component of the Strategic Defense Initiative have worked? No one really know, but the overall system could -- and did -- work magnificently.

As Desert Storm showed so well, gold-plating the military occasionally produces failures like the B-1 Bomber, but it generally produces excellent weapons which strait-jacketed dictatorships cannot equal. The consequences of quick, decisive, and easy victory over Saddam Hussein is not what liberals or any other men who think liberty corrosive expected. Thugs around the globe have been quaking for the last ten years. Sounds like a pretty good investment!

The whole notion of a "Strategic Defense Initiative" is connected the Anglo-American trust in seas as a peculiar friend of liberty. Britain's "wooden walls" allowed the English to experiment with different models of government without a huge standing army. The American Revolution and the Monroe Doctrine also rested upon a strategic defense of freedom based upon naval power which could protect but not conquer potential enemies in Europe.

As technology has conquered seas, oceans, and skies, the concept of the medium through which to defend freedom without directly threatening others has become tied up with advances in naval, aeronautical and space technology. The theme, however, is as old as the Thirteen Colonies, Napoleon glaring at Dover, or the Armada off the coast of England.

The question is not so much "Will it work?" The strategy itself has worked for centuries. Who would have thought that small, English ships could have "intercepted" the galleons of a Hapsburg Superpower? And who imagined that tiny Spitfires could locate, overtake, and destroy the fast medium bombers of the Luftwaffe? Until a thing is done (as free men understand) it always "sounds" impossible.

Robust, free nations have a natural, powerful edge in open media like seas, skies, and heavens. Chinese Emperors could have colonized the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and Africa -- if the rulers had not feared the liberation of the Chinese people more than any external threat or lure. When free nations craft the pieces of their strategy, the raw and uncut gems never look like polished diamonds at the beginning. But never had free people lost this theater unless they gave up first. So this is the only real question -- do we still have the will to be free?

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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