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A tendentious prediction is the Clinton administration's latest justification for its dilatory approach to defending the nation against the sort of ballistic missile attack that could be launched by a rogue nation. The administration says that such a threat is at least 15 years distant. The historical record of such predictions is not reassuring. Neither is the method by which this one was produced.

In 1906, three years after the flight at Kitty Hawk, Simon Newcomb, an eminent scientist, declared it was demonstrable - "as complete as is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be" - that "no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machine, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly long distances through the air." In 1922, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, said, "It is highly unlikely that an airplane, or fleet of them, could ever successfully sink a fleet of naval vessels under battle conditions." Albert Wohlstetter, a noted strategic thinker, writes that when in 1937 a congressional committee published an ambitious attempt to forecast technological developments of the next 10 to 25 years, it missed, among other things, nuclear energy, antibiotics, radar and jet propulsion. In 1945, MIT's Dr. Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, reported to the Senate concerning the possibility of developing an intercontinental (3,000 miles range) missile capable of delivering an atomic bomb precisely enough to hit a particular city: "I feel confident that it will not be done for a very long period of time. . . . I think we can leave that out of our thinking."Many experts were wrong about how swiftly the Soviet Union would acquire atomic and then hydrogen bombs. U.S. intelligence underestimated the progress of Iraq's nuclear program.

Now the Clinton administration suggests wagering the nation's safety on a sanguine prediction that seems to have been produced by a premise designed to induce complacency. The premise is that at least 15 years will elapse before a ballistic missile threat to the 48 contiguous states can be developed indigenously by a rogue state such as Iraq or North Korea.

However, note the intelligence estimate's emphasis on indigenous development of ballistic missiles by lesser powers. That scants the possibility that a nation capable of producing a device for mass destruction might be able to purchase on the international market a means of delivering that device to the continental United States.

Soothing assumptions about the good faith and shared interests of antagonists are natural to democracies, as is the desire to spend money on things other than defense. Getting a democracy to do what does not come naturally requires leadership. To get that for the defense of this democracy, a different commander in chief is required.