Wednesday, October 11, 2006


The Final Frontier

Bush: Space is for Soldiers


After four years and some 35 drafts, the Bush White House has finally released its long-awaited rewrite of the U.S. National Space Policy. Obviously, the administration was keen to get the word out – they quietly posted a 10-page unclassified summary on the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s website at 5 pm on Oct. 6 – the Friday before the Columbus Day long weekend.

Hmm. Maybe not.

When asked about the document, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow replied: "What, this old thing? Just something we inherited from our Uncle Bill." Well, not literally, of course. But in a further indication that the administration intends to downplay the significance of the document, insiders have been characterizing the new NSP as "nothing new," just a variation on the themes set by the Clinton administration in the last NSP.

A cursory reading might support that conclusion – much of the language from the previous policy is lifted intact. But giving such an important document just a cursory reading would be a mistake. Slap down the new NSP, signed by President Bush on Aug. 31, and the old one, signed by President Clinton in 1996, side by side, and reach deep down for those old grad-school "textual analysis" skills, and it’s quickly apparent that we are dealing with two very different beasts. Though that won’t come as a surprise to those who have been playing the space game over the past decade or so.

While the Clinton version focuses on civil and commercial space, the Bush NSP gives primacy to national security and military space. Example: of Clinton’s five goals for U.S. space programs, two mention national security; of Bush’s six goals, four are related to national security and defense.

While the Clinton policy aimed to highlight international cooperation and collective security in space, the Bush NSP takes a go–it-alone stance, using strong language that asserts U.S. unilateral rights in space while possibly also being intended to "negate" the rights of other space-faring nations. In ominous tones, the document threatens in one section to "dissuade or deter others from either impeding [U.S.] rights or developing capabilities intended to do so" – raising the specter of preemptive action against other nations’ dual-use space technology.

Indeed, even as the Bush policy emphasizes the importance of space security, it goes out of its way to make clear that this security may not, under any circumstances, come from (shudder) international law: "The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduce research, development, testing and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests" [emphasis added].

While the new NSP doesn't go as far as some space hawks wanted it to in openly endorsing the strategy of fighting "in, from and through" space, neither has it served to put a blanket – even a thin one – on those ambitions. And in taking a decidedly "us against them" tone, it is likely to further cement the view from abroad that the United States has taken on the role of a "Lone Space Cowboy." And as much as people love John Wayne movies overseas, that will not be a good thing.