Better late than never. After six full years of dithering and denying, the Clinton administration has finally recognized the need to defend the United States from missile attack by a rogue state like North Korea or Iran.

Right now if an enemy fired just one nuclear missile at Los Angeles or New York, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, the United States could do to stop it. That has been true for decades. Yet the Clinton administration has refused to commit this country to deploying a system to shoot down the missile before it obliterated an American city.Till last Wednesday. On Jan. 20, 1999, the Democrats finally threw in the towel and admitted the obvious: The United States needs an anti-ballistic missile defense and soon.

What happened? For 15 years Democrats have been ridiculing the ABM idea, derisively calling it "Star Wars," a product of Ronald Reagan's Hollywood naivete and crude anti-communism.

For decades Democrats remained theologically bound to the ABM Treaty, a 27-year-old anachronism signed with a country that no longer exists (the Soviet Union) to deal with a problem that no longer exists (the Cold War nuclear arms race) but that today prevents us from building defenses against the coming threat of missile attack by rogue states.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Douglas Feith shows in a paper released on Jan. 22 by the Center for Security Policy that as a matter of international law the treaty is dead. Gone. And yet so thorough is the liberal enthrallment with arms control that the Clinton administration actually strengthened and broadened the treaty with its 1997 agreement bringing in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in addition to Russia.

Moreover, this is an administration that in 1995 predicted that no ballistic missile threat would emerge for 15 years and that only weeks ago was denying any urgency to countering a missile attack.

On Aug. 24, 1998, Chairman Hugh Shelton of the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured Congress in writing "that the intelligence community can provide the necessary warning of the indigenous development and deployment by a rogue state of an ICBM threat to the United States."

Unfortunate timing for Shelton. Not a week had passed before North Korea shocked the world with a test of its Taepo Dong 1 missile, a three-stage rocket with intercontinental potential -- exactly the kind of threat the CIA had said was 15 years away.

After that, even Democrats could no longer deny the obvious. Defense Secretary William Cohen announced the change in policy: The administration finally supports building a territorial missile defense for the United States. Cohen went so far as to say that if the Russians refuse to amend the ABM Treaty, which as written prohibits such defenses, the United States might just have to withdraw from it.

(The treaty explicitly provides for withdrawal on six months' notice if "extraordinary events" make adherence a threat to a signatory's "supreme interests." North Korea is the "extraordinary event"; preventing the obliteration of L.A. is the "supreme interest.")

And still the old theology dies hard. After Cohen made his statement, the White House began backtracking furiously. It repeated the hoary mantra that "the ABM Treaty remains . . . a cornerstone of strategic stability." And it disclaimed Cohen's threat to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, saying that we would only deploy what would be permitted under amendments to the ABM Treaty agreed to by Russia.

Why? Why in heaven's name do we need Moscow's permission to defend ourselves against a catastrophic threat from North Korea or Iran? Because of a piece of parchment that is legally dead? Because the Communist-dominated Duma, which opposes American foreign policy on everything from Iraq to Kosovo, will be cross with us?

What standing does Russia, of all nations, have to dictate how and whether the United States will defend itself? Russia is the principal supplier to Iran of precisely the missile and nuclear technology that could one day turn New York into Hiroshima.

President Clinton promptly dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Russia to ask them to say yes to an American ABM system. They instead gave her a resounding nyet. She smiled and said that a delegation of experts would visit Moscow to continue the dialogue.

The only purpose of such a mission should be to politely tell the Russians to go jump in the lake. After having admitted that the ICBM threat is real and that we must defend ourselves, the Clinton administration cannot possibly allow Russia to stop us from doing what it has just said we must do. Or can it?

Washington Post Writers Group