Star wars II: Bill Clinton strikes back

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The Independent Online
JUST WHEN you thought it was all over. Sixteen years after spearheading Ronald Reagan's uncompromising Cold War defence policy, "star wars" has returned to the US agenda, endorsed this time by both main political parties.

A project which the Pentagon admitted started out as an elaborate bluff, but scared the Soviet Union sufficiently to exhaust its defence budget, is making a comeback, as much for domestic political purposes as for any deterrent effect it might have abroad.

The Strategic Defence Initiative, as it used to be called, has been given the less euphemistic name of National Missile Defence, and its ambitions have been scaled down so that the defensive "shield" will cover more limited areas rather than whole countries. But the concept is identical: to make US vital installations invulnerable to missile attack. A total of $10.5bn (pounds 6.5bn) has been budgeted for the system, and it could be in place by 2005.

Republicans had long been trying to revive the "star wars" project but had been thwarted by Democrats before the requisite legislation was even tabled. And even when the Bill started its passage through the Senate this month, President Clinton had been confidently expected to veto it. Last week, however, in what one jubilant Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona, described as one of his "more propitious policy reversals", Mr Clinton changed his mind.

"Star wars", the emblem of President Reagan's victorious crusade against Communism, is now officially part of US national defence policy under a Democratic president, passed by big majorities in both houses of Congress. Increased concern about the risk to the US from rogue missiles or from countries not signed up to international arms control agreements is one reason why the Bill passed so easily. More specifically, Republicans cited the dangers from countries such as Iran and North Korea, both of which tested long-range missiles last year.

The reasons for Mr Clinton's change of heart on using his veto, however, may originate elsewhere. Recent allegations that China may have narrowed the nuclear missile technology gap with the US on the basis of blueprints stolen from the US National Laboratory at Los Alamos hardened the mood in Congress and meant that the presidential veto could have been overridden. Mr Clinton may also have been swayed, in the wake of those allegations, by the knowledge that the Republican Party would make stewardship of national security a major issue in next year's presidential election. By accepting "star wars", Mr Clinton has astutely deprived the Republicans of using his veto as a campaign pitch.

With the Russian prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, due in Washington this week, and the Chinese prime minister, Zhu Rongji, due next month, the extent of the diplomatic fall-out should soon be evident.