For eight years the Clinton Administration preached the need for exquisite sensitivity to the Russians. They'd had a rough time. They needed nurturing from their new American friends.
They got it. We fed them loans, knowing that much of the money would disappear corruptly. We turned away from atrocity in Chechnya lest we weaken the new Russian state. But most important, we went weak in the knees on missile defense. The prospect of American antiballistic missiles upset the Russians. And upsetting the Russians was something we simply were not to do.
The Russians cannot keep up with American technology. And they fear that an American missile shield will render obsolete their last remnant of greatness: their monster, nuclear-tipped missiles. So they insist that we adhere to a 1972 treaty signed with the defunct Soviet Union that prohibited either side from developing missile defenses. That the treaty is obsolete--it long predates the world of rogue states racing to acquire missile-launched weapons of mass destruction--does not concern the Russians. Withdraw from the treaty, they said, and you have destroyed the "strategic stability" on which the peace of the world depends.
The Clinton Administration took that threat seriously--so seriously that for eight years it equivocated on building an American ABM system. Finally, President Clinton promised to decide by June 2000. Come June, he punted.
Eight years, and no defense. But the bear was content.
Bear contentment was never a high priority for Ronald Reagan. He offered a different model for dealing with the Russians. The '80s model went by the name of peace through strength. But it was more than that. It was judicious but unapologetic unilateralism. It was willingness--in the face of threats and bluster from foreign adversaries and nervous apprehension from domestic critics--to do what the U.S. needed to do for its own security. Regardless.
It was Reagan who famously proposed a missile shield, and even more famously refused to barter it away at the Reykjavik summit, an event many historians consider the turning point in the cold war. That marked the beginning of the Soviets' definitive realization that they were going to lose the arms race to the U.S.--and that neither threats nor cajoling could dissuade the U.S. from running it.
This decade starts with a return to the unabashed unilateralism of the '80s. It began last year with a speech by George W. Bush proposing that the U.S. build weapons to meet American needs--and not to accommodate the complaints or gain the agreement of other countries. For 40 years we would not cut our offensive nuclear missiles except in conjunction with Soviet cuts. Bush's refreshing question was: Why? We don't need Russians cutting our offensive weapons through arms-control treaties. And we don't need Russians telling us whether or not to build defensive weapons.
This was the genesis of the Bush Doctrine, now taking shape as the Administration takes power. Its motto is, We build to suit--ourselves. Accordingly, the President and the Secretary of Defense have been unequivocal about their determination to go ahead with a missile defense.