This presidential election may break the pattern of modern poll-driven campaigns, as the candidates are debating a genuine issue: strategic defense. And it presents an opportunity for Christians to offer a faith-based perspective.Gov. George W. Bush fired the opening salvo, proposing a post–Cold War defense policy that relies upon anti-missile defense (intercepting and destroying incoming missiles) and reduces strategic offensive weapons aimed at cities and civilians.Vice President Al Gore immediately labeled the plan "risky." And despite the president's recent move to defer any decision on antimissile defense to his successor, the Clinton administration reiterated its commitment to the 1972 ABM (antiballistic missile) Treaty. This forces the U.S. to rely on offensive strategic missiles and limits us to a single missile defense site.Clinton and Gore are thus standing by the Cold War model of two superpowers, using treaties to limit one another and missiles poised to attack if necessary. Bush sees a world in which there is only one superpower, with the U.S. free to make policy without the permission of former superpowers.This debate brings back a flood of memories. In 1971 President Nixon became alarmed by intelligence reports that the Soviets were developing defensive missiles. He put me in charge of persuading recalcitrant senators to approve a U.S. defensive missile system. I worked around the clock and we prevailed by one vote. This gave Nixon the bargaining chip he needed to force the Soviets to accept a treaty limiting anti-ballistic missiles, which was signed in 1972. We still had offensive superiority.We were elated. But it also meant continuing to rely upon intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for deterrence. This missile strategy, rightly called mad—for Mutual Assured Destruction—aimed missiles at Soviet cities, ready to be fired in retaliation against an attack on the U.S. or our NATO allies. The Soviets, too, were targeting our cities, which meant that each superpower held the other's civilian populations hostage.Even then, as a non-Christian, I was troubled by MAD. As a Marine officer I was trained to avoid civilian casualties at all costs; and here we were in White House briefings deliberately targeting millions of civilians. MAD was a Faustian bargain, but it worked: throughout the half-century of the Cold War, neither side launched a strategic missile, and Soviet imperialism was contained.But today the world has changed dramatically. We are the lone superpower facing new threats from rogue states. And despite some embarrassing test failures, our strategic defense capability has greatly advanced since 1972 (and would be further along still if it weren't hemmed in by the outdated restraints of the ABM Treaty).These new circumstances force us to ask whether relying on offensive missiles alone is justifiable today, or even whether it works. What would happen if North Korea fired a missile at San Francisco? At present, an American president would face a dreadful choice of either leveling the Korean peninsula or doing nothing. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl says no president would fire back. If that is so, we have no credible deterrent.The administration took one step that reflects this new world: it issued highly classified directives in 1997, turning strategic targeting away from cities. But missiles are still aimed at about 2,200 targets, so retaliation would inevitably cause massive civilian casualties.The Augustinian just-war formulation, which has historically informed Western thought, holds that the use of force must be in a just cause, ordered by competent authority, and with the right intention. Missile defense protects a civilian population, which is just; the federal government is a competent authority; and the intention in defensive action is right by definition.Secondary factors in the just-war theory also apply: force is to be used only as a last resort, it must be proportionate, and peace is the goal. Missile defense again meets these standards better than MAD: these weapons would be fired only against a missile actually launched, and so, obviously, is a last resort; it uses only the force necessary to stop an attack, and so is proportional; and since the weapon resists aggression, peace is clearly the goal.Ironically, adherence to the present treaty moves us away from the just-war standard. It means relying on a land-based defensive system, which can only attack a missile when it is incoming and approaching population centers. If we were not bound by the treaty, we could develop sea- or space-based systems that hit missiles immediately after being launched, minimizing the risk to population centers.Admittedly, this is a complicated issue. Some believe missile defense will refuel the arms race. The Clinton administration is especially wary of upsetting U.S. and Russian relations. But whatever prudential arguments are made, one thing is clear: mad cannot be defended on moral grounds. MAD undergirded our defense against communism for 50 tense years. But just-war principles have informed Western military ethics for nearly two millennia. MAD, judged by just-war criteria, fails. Strategic defense passes. Christians should welcome the current debate. And Cold War relics should no longer deter us from adopting a nonaggressive, more just defense policy.

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Related Elsewhere

Read more about just-war theory .Other media coverage of anti-missile systems includes:It Only Looks Like He's Not Doing Anything —CNN (Sept. 4, 2000) Russian intransigence led to U.S. missile delayThe Japan Times (Sept. 4, 2000) Putin hails Clinton's move to delay building missile systemThe Boston Globe (Sept. 3, 2000)Previous Christianity Today stories about Christian principles and war include:Does Kosovo Pass the Just-War Test? | The military intervention introduces moral questions that the church ought to raise now, not waiting until the body bags start coming home. (May 24, 1999) The Last Good War | Three "Best Picture" nominations ask why we fight. (April 5, 1999) Was the Revolutionary War Justified? | Americans fought a war to gain the kind of freedom that Canada, New Zealand, and Australia were simply given. (Feb. 8, 1999)

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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