The Political Rationale
Although the strategic, technological rationale appears to provide most of SDI's raison d'être, with the economic rationale only a subsidiary theme, the political rationale is probably its underlying source. This rationale has both ideological and pragmatic aspects.
The Reagan administration's commitment to SDI reflected its conservative ideology, which emphasizes the goal of advancing the cause of democratic capitalism against Soviet communism and imperialism. This goal is thought to require "a strong military" in virtually every conceivable respect. The ideology is unabashedly nationalistic and skeptical of the value of arms control, détente, and international organizations. Continued nuclear testing is supported on the ground that so long as the United States remains committed to nuclear weapons, the military must be assured the weapons are effective and researchers must be free to improve them. The ABM Treaty is disliked because it inhibits the United States from developing defensive weapons, making military strength a matter of developing offensive capabilities alone.
From this perspective, military R&D of all kinds is vital. Military
strength can best be assured not only by providing the armed services with the hardware they need and with the ability to attract and keep the personnel to operate it but also by encouraging the weapons laboratories to advance the state of the art. There is no room in this position for President Eisenhower's strictures against the "military-industrial complex" or for the liberal and radical view that argues for economic conversion of military industry to civilian pursuits. A cardinal tenet of the conservative view in general, which applies especially to SDI, is the belief that the United States' great strength is its free-enterprise economy, especially the high-technology sector. By freeing industry from the burden of high taxes, conservatives expect to stimulate enterprise. By providing government subsidies for military R&D, they aim to direct that industrial strength to the maintenance of national security. By maintaining stringent security classifications and restrictions on exports of technology to the Soviet bloc, they aim to protect the military advantages conferred by the West's superiority over the Soviet Union in industry and most areas of science and engineering.
The fundamental beliefs informing this general policy are that the United States is locked in a deadly competition with the Soviet Union and that superiority in military technology is a critical factor. The Soviets, conservatives believe, are determined to achieve military superiority even at continued cost to the civilian sector of the economy. Unlike liberals, who tend to interpret increased Soviet military expenditures mainly as an effort to attain and maintain strategic parity with the West, conservatives hold that the U.S.S.R.'s aim is not parity but superiority—a superiority it would seek to exploit for political gain and, if possible, to achieve a military victory over the West. From this point of view, détente generally serves the interest of the Soviets far more than that of the United States. Détente lets them conduct subversive proxy efforts to destabilize the West through "wars of national liberation" in the developing countries and through "low-intensity warfare," including terrorism. Wherever they can, conservatives contend, the Soviets seek to block resolution of conflicts in the developing countries, hoping to pick up the pieces or to force the West to protect its interests by committing resources to these conflicts. Within its own spheres of influence, in Western Europe or Asia, the Soviet Union remains committed to the "Brezhnev doctrine," i.e., it aims to consolidate its hold and to extend it if possible. A U.S. commitment to military improvements helps to put the U.S.S.R. on the defensive, forcing it to match Western expenditures, thereby straining its resources. Such strains are apt to inhibit the Soviets
from attempting to acquire new dependencies and foment difficulties for the West, especially insofar as they find that they need access to Western technology in order to keep pace, both in military and in civil terms.
In this international perspective, SDI can be regarded as merely another facet of the "Reagan doctrine"—that is, of a plan to take the offensive in the competition with the Soviets and to counter their efforts to intimidate the West. The Soviets fear SDI, according to this reasoning, because they know the West can make it work and that it will degrade their efforts to achieve offensive superiority. To cope with it, they will be compelled to increase expenditures on countermeasures and defenses of their own which could put an unbearable strain on their economy. SDI, moreover, can be seen as a pragmatic response to the Soviet effort to seize the high ground of space and to develop advanced weapons. It is an effort both to steal a march on the Soviets and to make sure they do not do the same to the West.
This political rationale greatly appeals to hard-core conservatives and to a broader public attuned to the same sentiments. Adherence to the SDI has thus become a litmus test of personal loyalty not only to the president but also to his legacy. Aspirants to the Reagan mantle, like Jack Kemp and Dan Quayle, have pledged to maintain SDI as a token of their commitment to the conservative agenda, along with tax reduction and militant anticommunism. The president's acute sense for U.S. public opinion also led him to see SDI's broader appeal. To those concerned about the prospect of nuclear attack but opposed to political accommodation with the U.S.S.R., it provided hope for protection. This hope, moreover, entailed the development of nonnuclear systems in the main and therefore was not vulnerable to the usual objection that increasing U.S. military strength would only escalate the arms race. SDI thus responded to a widespread longing for a mitigation of the nuclear threat without requiring any progress in arms control or trust in the Soviets. Instead, it required only traditional American beliefs: self-confidence in the U.S. economy and in the country's capacities for technological achievement.
Although liberals claimed it would unleash a new, no-holds-barred phase of the arms race, most Americans reacted favorably to the project, even though they also favored arms-control agreements. SDI carried a particular appeal for young people because of their absorption in the romance of science-fiction-style space adventure. Even though critics warned that SDI would unleash a new, unrestrained chapter in the
arms race, everywhere—even in Europe, where leaders openly expressed skepticism about its feasibility—SDI generated public enthusiasm precisely because it seemed to respond to a deep fear (ironically, one that had been reinforced by disarmament campaigns) by offering a hope that did not seem unduly provocative or warlike. A nonnuclear shield seemed a good deal less threatening than a Damoclean sword composed of fifty thousand nuclear weapons. By promising to share the technology with the Soviets and emphasizing his intention to achieve a defense for all humankind and not U.S. military advantage, Reagan couched SDI in terms that gave it a very broad appeal. In the case of SDI, as Garry Wills has observed, "others have the arguments, but Reagan has the audience."