The Political Auspices Of SDI
Political auspices were equally critical for the initial success of SDI. The SDI was promoted by a very small coalition of military officers, scientists, strategists, and politicians, but it enjoyed nothing approaching the support for the B-1 bomber. SDI did not carry the immediate promise of lucrative procurement contracts, and it did not arouse much enthusiasm among military researchers, who had come to rely more on continued modernization of offensive weapons. Because there seemed to be no effective defenses against nuclear attack, the important goal, in their view, was to assure that the nuclear-deterrent forces could be protected from attack, could penetrate prospective defenses, and would be
accurate enough to do whatever was required. Although there had long been a significant level of support for basic research into technologies that might have defensive applications, the 1972 ABM Treaty had ruled out their development. Indeed, as we note in chapter 1, early in the Reagan administration's first term, even the Defense Department's own internal review of the High Frontier proposal on strategic defenses had led to the conclusion, announced by Secretary Weinberger, that the project was premature at best, because it could easily be defeated and overwhelmed.
The president's decision to make SDI his own pet project made all the difference. As an air force general with planning responsibilities observed: "All other systems stem from some statement of operational need. SDI was generated by the president. We didn't have that operational requirement before the president's vision of a world with no nukes." As we note in chapter 1, Reagan did not seek prior approval from the defense establishment because he had been warned that SDI would be resisted. He also did not consult the White House Science Council. When a broad review committee was finally established (the Fletcher Committee), it was not asked "whether," but "how." Instead, Reagan chose to listen only to enthusiasts and to trust his own judgment about what was desirable. That judgment was based on a faith in U.S. science and technology as well as on a personal frustration with the existing strategic situation and concern that a future U.S. president might not be able to rely on being able to deter an attack by threatening unacceptable retaliation. As we saw in chapter 1, this belief, coupled with skepticism about the prospects for negotiating a reduction of the nuclear threat and a dislike for the very notion of mutual U.S.-Soviet nuclear deterrence prompted the president's decision. It was successfully implemented not because the president could count on support in Congress, the DOD, and the contractors—or, in other words, from all points of the "iron triangle"—but rather because he went over the heads of the "establishment" and appealed to the electorate. His simplistic vision of a space shield against nuclear weapons aroused precisely the strong public approval that he needed and that his political instincts told him he could expect.
Once he advanced this vision and the people responded favorably, Reagan could count on enlisting institutional support among the contractors whose interests would be served, within the services where special divisions would be created with responsibility for the program, and among those who would develop the strategic rationale for the program.
Although he could anticipate opposition to the program, he could calculate that most of it would come from political liberals, whom he had defeated before. By couching the issue in ideological terms, as a test of his hardheaded conservatism versus his critics' supposed weak-kneed liberalism, the president could hope to fashion a foreign policy issue that would serve as a focal counterpart to his campaign for the domestic conservative agenda. SDI had a particular appeal for his ideological supporters because it represented an effort to achieve national security by relying on U.S. military-technological initiatives rather than on negotiations with the Soviets. At the same time, it undercut the moral case of freeze advocates and went them one better by proposing a nonnuclear defense that would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." In short, it was in many respects well calculated to (1) evoke the same fervor that other elements of the conservative crusade had elicited among Reagan's most ardent following and in the general public, and (2) buttress and institutionalize this appeal by building a coalition of support among contractors, the defense laboratories, and influential figures in the media. Opposition, the president knew, could easily be labeled as evidence of the liberals' eagerness to make lopsided concessions in order to achieve agreements with the Soviet Union. Ironically, liberal opposition would only make the cause of SDI that much more formidable politically.