U.S. Senate campaigns aren't what they used to be. California's incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer and challenger Matt Fong, for instance, have been talking a lot this year about education, which is primarily a state issue and hasn't much concerned senators in the past. But recently a controversy has emerged between them which goes to one of the nation's — and the Senate's — chief concerns — national security. Specifically, Fong has announced support for building a U.S. missile defense system. Boxer is opposed.
Boxer believes that arms control is the best way of ensuring U.S. security. She has been consistent in this view throughout her political career: as a congresswoman 15 years ago, she opposed Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative on the same grounds.
Fong, a newcomer to national security issues, points to some interesting post-Cold War realities which lead him to the opposite position: For one thing, every major nation today either has or is trying to get nuclear weapons. For another, the availability of nuclear technology makes it perfectly possible for even small nations, if they have some money, to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Fong also has been championing the findings of a bi-partisan commission, headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which reported in June that the nuclear threat against the United States is serious and imminent. In particular, the Rumsfeld Report stated that countries like North Korea and Iran would soon be capable of striking the United States or U.S. troops abroad; that civil strife in Russia makes it difficult to assume that its nuclear arsenal is secure; and, that China is modernizing its arsenal at an alarming rate.
The recent successful launch of the three stage Taepo Dong I rocket/ballistic missile by North Korea surprised many U.S. analysts. This missile is capable of going much farther than was expected. The Taepo Dong II is now seen as capable of hitting major west coast targets — including Alaska, from which California gets almost all of its oil. Professor Daniel Fine of MIT believes this may well lead to nuclear blackmail by the North Koreans — or, worse, an actual nuclear strike that could destroy 25% of U.S. oil reserves with minimal loss of life.
Earlier this year two Congressmen, one on the House Intelligence Committee, reported that Iran already has the ability to launch a nuclear missile at Israel, our Middle East ally, as well as U.S. troops in the Middle East. In this effort Iran has been aided by Russia which continues to transfer nuclear technology to U.S. enemies such as Iran, and continues to modernize its own nuclear forces. Amid reports that its economy is collapsing there are also reports that Russia is developing an ultrasonic cruise missile capable of destroying our current naval defenses.
Add to this the new Chinese threat. During the Cold War there was at least the belief that the United States and the Soviet Union would refrain from nuclear war for fear of destroying one another. This doctrine, called mutually assured destruction, hinged on the two nations' mutual understanding that they were vulnerable.
This understanding doesn't apply to Chinese strategic thinking. With a population of 1.3 billion, the Chinese could potentially absorb a massive nuclear strike intact. One indication of this is the Chinese "Great Wall Project" — a missile complex built into the Tai-Hang Mountain Range in Northern China which is designed to withstand a massive nuclear strike and ensure Chinese nuclear retaliation. In other words, the strategic thinking that prevailed in the U.S. during the Cold War is sorely outdated.
After the Central Intelligence Agency confirmed that China has thirteen ICBMs aimed at the United States, each one capable of destroying major U.S. cities, President Clinton raised the issue of nuclear proliferation during his June meeting in Beijing. The Chinese government's response was predictable: while Clinton was still in the country, it tested the rocket engine for China's latest generation of ICBMs.
As the Rumsfeld Report notes, the Chinese threat to America is of particular interest to Californians: During a confrontation over Taiwan in 1996, Lt. Gen. Xiong Guang Kai, a senior Chinese official, made an implicit nuclear threat against our state, telling U.S. officials not to interfere because Americans "care more about Los Angeles than they do Tai Pei."
Boxer dismisses warnings like the Rumsfeld Report as mere bluster by defense hawks who are sentimental for the Cold War. Accordingly she voted (S. 1873) in August against a policy of deploying a national missile defense as soon as it becomes technologically feasible.
Thus far senators who opposed this policy are aided by the astounding fact that 74% of Americans believe the U.S. already has a missile defense system. The good news for missile defense advocates is that when Americans learn the U.S. is defenseless against missiles, they become angry.
Senate races around the nation could be significantly influenced by how many Americans are educated between now and November 3 on the national security ramifications of their vote.