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Why Obama’s Decision to Scrap the Proposed “Missile Shield” was a Correct but Difficult Choice

- September 17, 2009

President Obama’s decision to scrap a controversial “missile shield” in Central Europe (see “here”:http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/17/missile.defense.shield/index.html; “here”:http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_US_MISSILE_DEFENSE?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2009-09-17-10-05-36, and “here”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/world/europe/18shield.html?_r=1&hp) is the correct one to make, but, like many difficult decisions, comes with costs. To understand why the decision was correct, we need to look at the supposed justifications for the missile defense system. On one hand, the missile system was supposed to protect the US from an Iranian threat. Exactly how it was going to do this was never to clear to me, but the most compelling argument was that the defense system – if it worked – could prevent Iran from exerting power over the US by threatening Europe with a missile attack. On the other hand, the system was seen as a way of providing important security commitments to our important allies Poland and the Czech Republic.

The problem here, of course, is that East European countries, and especially Poland, are not worried about the Iranians; they are much more worried about the Russians. So the underlying question always was, was the system really aimed at the Russians? We knew this, the Poles knew this, and the Russians knew this; hence the tension this interjected into US-Russian relations. Furthermore, within Russia the missile defense system was practically a gift on a silver platter to anyone who wanted to stir up or play on anti-American sentiments in an effort to justify a more antagonistic foreign policy towards the US (as well as more nationalistic behavior at home). But given the “unstated” nature of the potential for the missile defense system to provide protection to Poland and other East European nations against Russia, we could never really get into a discussion about whether 10 missile interceptors in Poland would actually have any sort of deterrent effect against any remotely likely Russian actions. As a corollary, the Russians never had to really provide any justification for why they were so angry: they could just define the interceptors as a generic threat to Russian national security.

So the bottom line is: (1) it is unclear how these interceptors would have improved US national security; (2) it is unclear how the interceptors would have improved the security of US allies in Eastern Europe; (3) they would have been expensive (note Obama’s mention of “cost-effectiveness” in his speech this morning); (4) we don’t know if they would have worked (note Obama’s emphasis on the effectiveness of his proposed alternative, stating in this “morning’s statement”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/world/europe/18shield.html?_r=1&hp that “This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against missile threats than the 2007 missile defense program.”); and (5) they would have continued to provide a serious impediment to improving US-Russian relations. All in all, this does not seem like a program worth going forward with simply because people in the previous administration saw fit to initialize it. When you are the president, you ultimately need to take decision that will improve the national security of your nation, and, in my opinion, on balance the proposed missile shield would not have done so.

But let’s be clear: this is not a costless decision. Anytime we change our mind on military commitments to allies, they are costs down the road to doing so. And both the Polish and Czech governments have borne serious costs to move this program along to where it now stands with their own populations – which were far from uniformly enthusiastic about these proposals, especially in the Czech Republic – so we want to be very careful about the impression that we have left these important allies hanging in the wind. I would hope the administration would take damage control in this regard very seriously, and I expect to see details coming out over the next few days about what exactly we are doing to ameliorate the Poles and the Czechs.

Second, there will be political costs for the Obama administration at home, as it will give the Republicans yet another chance to argue that a Democrat is soft on defense. This argument, however, is getting old in the current era, and makes it that much more incumbent upon the administration to explain that this was a decision made with the goal of enhancing national security. Just because people will want to spin this as a decision to appease the Russians or to prioritize US-Russian relations over US-Polish relations does not mean that going forward with the missile shield would have actually improved US national security.

Finally, it is important not to overestimate the effect of this decision on US-Russian relations. Yes, this will remove a thorn from that relationship, and an important thorn at that. And it is possible that we may even see some reciprocal move on Russia’s part in terms of ratcheting up pressure on Iran in the coming days; there have long been indications that “such a deal might be possible”:http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/obama-love?id=8531efdf-8baa-4c20-8001-3144b54655d8. But this doesn’t mean that lots of other problems in US-Russian relations are going to magically disappear. Moreover, care must be made to convince the Russians of the exact same thing that the American people need to be convinced of: this decision was not made to appease Moscow, but rather because it was seen to be in the best interest of US national security. The Russians should take comfort in the fact that the current administration is willing to listen to arguments about the value of particular policy decisions, but they should in no way take away from this an overinflated sense of Russian influence over US foreign policy.

[Note: This post is very similar to the contribution I made to “Politico’s Arena”:http://www.politico.com/arena/ today.]