On September 1, President Clinton announced that he would leave to his successor the decision on whether to move from research and development to deployment of the National Missile Defense (NMD).

The announcement to shelve the NMD was long overdue. The United States came very close to spending billions of dollars—and risking a confrontation with Russia and China, and a breach with its NATO allies—for the sake of an unworkable project based on fraudulent intelligence assessments and dubious technology.

The proponents of the NMD made extravagant claims about the danger of a surprise missile attack from a “rogue” state. Their campaign was supported by the defense industry and many GOP luminaries who have never seen a military spending bill they didn’t like. Initially, President Clinton was on board, talking of “the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security allegedly posed by the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed that such proliferation was “the single most pressing threat to our security.”

Until two years ago, the intelligence community in Washington did not find any evidence of this “unusual and extraordinary threat.” In 1995, for instance, the annual National Intelligence Assessment reflected the foreign policy establishment’s consensus: “[N]o country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years” that could threaten the United States. Unhappy with this bland finding and under pressure from the military-industrial complex. Congress set up a commission charged with the task of producing a more sensational assessment. The result was the 1998 Rumsfeld Report.

With its gloomy appraisal of potential missile threats, the report became the rationale for the entire NMD campaign, but it arrived at its alarming conclusions by subterfuge. The commission’s investigation did not consider the likelihood of missile threats; rather, its conclusions were based on a worst-case scenario. Yet the findings were presented to the public as conceptually and methodologically “neutral.” Intelligence analysts who were shocked at the fraudulent manipulation of data were told to keep quiet or they would lose their jobs. The official line was that we should anticipate ICBM threats not only from Russia, China, and North Korea, but from third-rate powers such as Iran and Iraq.

Independent expert opinion could not be muzzled, however. In Senate testimony last February, the Carnegie Foundation’s arms-control expert Joseph Cirincione pointed out that “the number of countries trying or threatening to develop long-range ballistic missiles has not changed greatly in 15 years, and is actually smaller than in the past.” He demonstrated how the NMD advocates had manipulated threat-assessment methodology, distorting the result. In addition, the proponents of NMD never presented a credible scenario of a “rogue” attack on the United States. They simply assumed that countries which are capable of developing advanced missile technology have, at the same time, decisionmaking structures that are suicidal, irrational, and devoid of strategic thinking. In fact, most “rogue” states are led by unpleasant but perfectly rational people: Neither Saddam nor Kim Jong II has shown any desire to destroy himself in a grand gesture of spiteful vengeance.

The real threat to America—especially to its large cities—comes from terrorist groups, not states. Intelligence experts think that any attack would be biological rather than nuclear, and that the method of delivery is more likely to be a smuggled suitcase than a ballistic missile. Can America defend against such a threat? M Charley Reese put it even before the NMD hit the headlines, “terrorism is a political act, a response to U.S. foreign policy. It is an act of war waged by people too weak to have a conventional army or one large enough to take on the United States.” The solution to terrorism is to end the policies that foster it.

The Rumsfeld Report unwittingly supported this view when it stated that “a number of countries with regional ambitions do not welcome the U.S. role as a stabilizing power in their regions . . . they want to place restraints on the U.S. capability to project power or influence into their regions.” Here is the core problem: NMD advocates assume the desirability of American global hegemony as the basis of U.S. foreign policy, while any criticism of the NMD and its fraudulent intellectual underpinnings also challenges America’s unrestrained projection of power. The report’s authors implicitly admit that the United States is threatened because of its policy of global hegemony.

If American interests are assumed to include the ability to project power everywhere and at all times, then threats are also perceived to be unlimited and permanent. Given current U.S. policies abroad, NMD would indicate to the world that the United States has hostile intentions: the desire to bomb foreigners while avoiding retaliation. Short of a radical change in U.S. diplomacy, a viable antiballistic shield above America would be the equivalent of giving a trigger-happy sniper a bulletproof vest.

The immediate reason for President Clinton’s decision to postpone NMD deployment was technical: The two most recent tests failed miserably; the dummy attack missiles reached their targets. As a consequence, NMD is increasingly seen as untenable not only on technical, but on strategic and political, grounds.

While President Clinton did not address fundamental objections to NMD, the postponement may prove indefinite. “We should not move forward until we have absolute confidence that the system will work,” Clinton said. Such certainty will be unattainable for decades: A missile defense guaranteed to work against an enemy who can launch large numbers of projectiles and deploy sophisticated countermeasures is not even on the drawing board.

That is a good thing, because it may remind Americans that our security does not rest on an antimissile system, but in a prudent diplomacy backed by a strong military capable of defending this country’s territory and its national interests.