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Bush as Reagan on Missile Defense?

By Peter Brown

Those who fail to understand history, as someone famous once observed, are doomed to repeat its mistakes. But seeing the past as an inflexible rule of thumb can have its risks if times have changed.

A generation ago, when the then-Soviet Union tried to stop Ronald Reagan from building a sophisticated computer-run defense system aimed at shooting down incoming missiles, the Gipper told them - and his Democratic critics here at home -- to take a hike.

Now, George W. Bush has to decide whether to follow the same path and risk further cooling of relations with Moscow.

Or, he could conclude that somewhat different circumstances require a more cooperative approach than Reagan took.

Reagan's refusal to stop development of his missile defense plan was part of his dare to the Soviets in the 1980s to agree to reduce nuclear weapons or get into what was for them a losing arms race.

Reagan was right. The Soviet Union tried to compete but collapsed under the weight of an economy that could not produce weapons and feed its people.

The result was a U.S. Cold War victory that made it the world's only superpower.

When Reagan offered his plan it was just on the drawing board, but the Soviets respected American technology enough to fear its eventual development.

Domestic U.S. critics of the plan argued then - and since -- it is unworkable, too-expensive, or too provocative toward the Soviets/Russians. But these days the Democratic opposition is less vociferous than in the 1980s.

A smaller version of the system that Reagan envisioned has now been developed and prototype bunkers with interceptors have been installed in the United States, where tests to shoot down incoming missiles have had mixed results.

Next on the drawing board is installation of sites in Poland and the Czech Republic to eventually defend Europe from missile attacks from rogue states.

Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, like his 1980s predecessors, sees a missile defense system based in Eastern Europe as also being aimed at Russia. Just as Reagan offered the Soviets in the 1980s, Bush has proposed sharing such a system with the Russians.

The Russian complaint is that a missile defense system sitting near its border in Eastern Europe could be converted to offensive use.

Putin has offered to base such a system in Russia under Russian control, which the Americans say would make it unable to stop missile attacks from Iran, which these days is the major concern.

When Reagan told the Russians that they could either accept missile defense or spend themselves into oblivion he had an advantage that Bush does not. The Soviet economy was in shambles and it ultimately collapsed.

These days, the Russian economy still has a long way to go, with widespread wealth disparity as millions have suffered a substantial drop in their living standard. The switch from communism to capitalism has eroded the government safety net there.

But the Russians are the world's biggest non-OPEC oil producer and have large natural gas supplies providing them with wealth untapped in the 1980s. U.S.-Russian relations are better than during the Reagan years and the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the two nations seems very remote.

Nevertheless, Putin has lately been much more critical of the United States and, has nationalized parts of the energy industry, seizing assets of Western companies. And he has said Russia will withdraw from an arms control treaty in order to pressure Bush.

Yet, Putin has worked with the United States on a host of matters, and he can leverage the Russian influence with Iran and his nation's U.N. Security Council veto in a face-off with Bush over missile defense.

All of which leaves Bush, whose political popularity both at home and abroad is much lower than was the Gipper's, with a choice:

He can follow Reagan's approach and proceed with the Polish and Czech installations despite the further rift is will cause in U.S.-Russian relations. Or, he can take a more conciliatory approach with the Russians, as did Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, on a host of issues.

It is hard to see George W. Bush as Jimmy Carter.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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