It's not the tests that matter, it's what they prepare you for. India's underground nuclear explosions are in themselves quite beside the point. The problem is that they enable India to now "weaponize" their nukes (they have had the bomb since at least 1974) or, to put it differently, nuclearize their military. India will build a force of nuclear-tipped missiles, something that only the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China (and possibly Israel) have now.

Pakistan will inevitably follow suit. China will beef up its already formidable nuclear missile force. And those countries from Iran to North Korea that are clandestinely developing theirs will continue apace.The lesson of the Indian bomb and the cycle it has both accelerated and exposed is obvious: Nonproliferation efforts can at best slow down the spread of weapons of mass destruction; they cannot stop it. They may buy us an extra five or 10 or 15 years. Nothing more.

Nonproliferation measures are valuable because the more we slow down the inevitable, the more time we have to prepare for it. Unfortunately, the Clinton security policy stops with nonproliferation. Clinton had counted on a unilateral American moratorium on nuclear testing and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to exert moral pressure to keep the likes of India from joining the nuclear club.

Nice try. And now what? Clinton's response at the G-8 summit was characteristically feckless and naive. He was reduced to sputtering that India's nuclear policy was "nutty," and calling for redoubled efforts to get the CTBT ratified. No matter that India's explosions had just proved the CTBT irrelevant.

Within a decade or two, we will be facing regimes, some quite nasty, that possess missiles armed with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads. What do we do about it?

The obvious answer is to build anti-missile defenses. Today, if a nuclear missile were launched accidentally toward Washington, there is absolutely nothing we could do to prevent the incineration of the city. The good news is that for the first time in history a "bullet-hitting bullet" to shoot down that missile is within technological reach. The bad news is that this administration has little interest in building it.

Our leaders love the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty far more than they love anti-ballistic missiles. And the entire purpose of the ABM treaty is to ensure mutual American and Soviet defenselessness.

Soviet? With the demise of the Soviet Union, the ABM treaty became a relic, an obsolete agreement contracted with a nonexistent country to deal with an outdated problem (the temptation of asymmetrically defended countries to attack pre-emptively). It could - it should - have been declared void. Failing that, we should have recognized Russia as the successor to the treaty.

What did Clinton's clever arms controllers do? Last September in New York, they signed an agreement extending the ABM treaty not just to Russia but to Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus, too. They multiplied the number of parties to the treaty from one to four - making it virtually impossible for any future administration to revise the treaty to allow us to build the defenses we need.

Moreover, the New York agreement invaded an area that the ABM treaty was not supposed to deal with at all. The original treaty bans only "strategic" defenses, i.e., of the American homeland. Bad enough. The Clinton extension of the ABM treaty, however, also constrains "theater" ABM systems - those we are now developing to defend our troops in the field. The new treaty restricts, for example, the velocity of our interceptors - which means that our theater defenses will be degraded and dumbed down.

Clinton's arms controllers have thus ensured not just the defenselessness of American cities to missile attack but greater vulnerability of American forces abroad, too. Nor is this threat merely theoretical: During the gulf war, a single Scud missile caused 20 percent of all American casualties.

The greatest travesty is that all this is being done unconstitutionally. The Senate has not ratified this treaty extension, yet the administration is already implementing it - for instance, exchanging information with the four countries about the capabilities of our theater missile systems.

The Clintonites, of course, believe this is all God's work. They believe an ABM treaty provides better protection for the United States than ABMs. That may have been true in the bipolar world of 1972 when the treaty was signed and we faced thousands of Soviet nukes, a threat no ABM system could meet. But today the threat is an accidental or unauthorized launch or a small but leathal barrage from, say, a North Korea or Iran.

Not to worry, says the administration. There will be no ballistic missile threat to the United States before 2010. How do they know? The CIA assures us.

As it did about India.

Washington Post Writers Group