U.S. President Bill Clinton announced last week that he would put off any final decision on national missile defense. Instead, his successor will have to decide whether to go ahead with the controversial program. It is the right decision. The United States should not rush to deploy an antimissile program that threatens to upset U.S. alliances and could trigger another nuclear arms race.

The U.S. government had set a 2005 target date for the deployment of NMD. That date was based on assessments of the ability of would-be enemies to develop their own ballistic-missile technology. To meet the 2005 deadline, the U.S. would have to award contracts to begin by the end of this year construction of the radar that would be the backbone of any missile shield.

In deferring the decision, Mr. Clinton said that he lacked the “absolute confidence” that existing technology can build the NMD system. That is no surprise. To date, the system has failed in two of three attempts to shoot down a missile — and each time for a different reason. In other words, the Pentagon has been unable to meet its own minimum criterion for declaring the system technologically feasible. And, as critics such as Mr. Theodore Postel of MIT point out, this has occurred despite efforts to rig the flight tests and make “success” as easy as possible. In the real world, that means the system is not feasible — especially when deployment would cost at least $60 billion. For NMD proponents, however, that does not seem to matter.

The response by other nations to Mr. Clinton’s decision has been uniformly positive. NATO said it was prudent; Germany said it was “wise.” Japan, a partner in the development of theater missile defense systems, has made it clear that it considers TMD different from NMD, and that it will continue to work on the former.

Russia and China were delighted, although their official statements only applauded Mr. Clinton’s prudence. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the decision “reinforces strategic stability and security in the entire world.” Chinese officials said they consider the delay “rational” and echoed Mr. Putin’s comments about security and stability. Both countries prefer the status quo. They are worried that a shield that works against so-called rogue states would also be effective against their own nuclear arsenals.

The U.S. has worked to assuage those concerns, but with little success. The failure is attributable, in part, to NMD proponents who argue that missile defense should be used as a shield to enable the U.S. to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy. They are in a minority, but Washington’s reluctance to accept other limits on the country’s foreign policy, such as the United Nations’ sanction before acting or the jurisdiction of an international criminal court, suggests that fears of U.S. unilateralism are not unfounded.

The delay has several implications. First, it means that work on radars cannot begin before 2002, which means that a national missile defense could not be completed before 2006 at the earliest. If the intelligence assessments are correct, this could leave a one-year window of vulnerability. That assumes, of course, that the deterrence that maintained peace during the Cold War is somehow ineffective in dealing with some governments. That assumption deserves to be challenged. Second, delay gives the U.S. more time to build a consensus, to win support for its views and to allay concerns about the program and head off the possibility of a nuclear arms race.

Finally, the decision to wait means that NMD will become an issue in the U.S. election. That is not a bad thing. The Republican candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has said that he would deploy NMD “at the earliest possible date.” In addition, he favors a defense system much bigger than the one being studied by the Clinton administration: Mr. Bush would extend the protective umbrella beyond U.S. territory to its allies as well. His opponent, Vice President Al Gore, prefers to assess the strategic consequences of deployment and the technical feasibility of the project. The two men should debate their positions in the campaign and give the U.S. public a solid basis for choosing a president in November.

Few domestic-security issues have the potential international impact of NMD. If ballistic-missile defenses prod other governments to build up arms to defeat the system, security has not been enhanced. If it encourages them to move toward first-strike or launch-on-warning positions, security has been diminished. Both factors should weigh heavily with whoever makes the decision to deploy a national missile defense — especially since its failures to date exceed its successes.

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