Bill Clinton, a president usually known for “political triangulation,” should be praised for postponing construction of a national missile defense (NMD) system and leaving to his successor the decision on whether to deploy the system. The politically expedient decision would have been to authorize groundbreaking for the radar site on a remote Aleutian island in order to insulate Vice President Gore from Republican charges that Democrats are soft on defense.

Although deploying a limited land-based NMD is a laudable goal, now is not the time to make a decision to do so. In responding to Republican pressure to implement such defenses quickly, the Pentagon adopted a rushed schedule to develop and field a system by 2005--the year the independent Rumsfeld Commission has projected that long-range missiles from North Korea could become a threat to the United States. But the 2005 date is artificial.

First, the Rumsfeld Commission report said that North Korean missiles “could” become a threat by 2005, not that they would “likely” become a threat by then. In addition, since the Rumsfeld report, tensions on the Korean peninsula have eased and the North Koreans have suspended tests of their long-range missiles. If nothing else, that suspension has slowed the North Korean missile program and given the United States time to develop NMD at a more prudent pace.

Extra time is valuable because rushing development only to discover that the fielded anti-missile system does not work will lengthen the time that the United States would be without defenses against North Korean missiles. At best, a failed system would require costly fixes; at worst, the Pentagon might need to start all over again. The Welch Commission, headed by Ret. Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch, warned the administration against such a “rush to failure.”

Any weapon system--but especially a system as complex and technologically daunting as NMD--should be thoroughly tested under realistic conditions before a deployment decision is made. Currently, only three of 19 scheduled intercept tests have been completed, and the first had an ambiguous result and the other two were failures. Furthermore, those tests were undertaken with a surrogate booster rocket; the real booster is a year behind schedule. With such a minimal and unimpressive test record, even starting construction on a radar site is premature until the Pentagon has a better idea of whether the system will work. If anything, more tests should be added to verify that the system will succeed in the actual environment in which it will operate--that is, against realistic decoys and countermeasures.

Clinton’s construction delay will also give the United States more time to renegotiate the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Russians. Although the treaty is technically void--the original signatory, the Soviet Union, no longer exists--a unilateral American decision to violate the pact’s ban on national defenses could cause Russia to abrogate other arms control agreements, to cease cooperation with the United States on securing the Russian nuclear stockpile against proliferation to “rogue” states and to sell such states sophisticated decoys and countermeasures that could defeat U.S. missile defenses. Because Russia cannot afford its bloated, deteriorating nuclear arsenal and fears U.S. development of an NMD unconstrained by the ABM Treaty, it has an incentive to trade substantial reductions in offensive weapons for a renegotiation of the pact to allow a limited U.S. missile defense.

Even if a limited NMD system is not deployed until 2010 (a more likely date), U.S. security will not be in dire straits. North Korea--or any other rogue state with a few long-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads--would probably be reluctant to launch an attack on the United States even if no American missile defense were deployed. U.S. satellites could pinpoint the origin of the missile launch, and the most powerful nuclear force in the world could obliterate the launching state. In fact, the best reason to deploy a limited missile defense is to guard against an accidental launch from such states, which are likely to have inadequate nuclear safeguards. Clinton’s action to delay a deployment decision will have few drawbacks but will likely enhance the chances of fielding an effective missile defense.