Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sanity Rules in Missile Shield Decision

President Obama's decision to pull the plug on missile defense shield bases in Poland and the Czech Republic is being blasted by his critics as either (another) sign of his weakness, a sell-out of our allies in Eastern Europe, bowing needlessly to the Russians, or any combination of the three.

Of course another take could be that it again shows the Obama administration's willingness to actually give up on over-priced military projects of dubious need and quality. Earlier this summer Defense Secretary William Gates cut the Air Force's F-22 Raptor program - the Raptor is the United States most advanced fighter aircraft, but it also costs more than a quarter billion dollars a pop, hasn't been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and spends about as much time down for maintenance as it does actually in the air. So Gates decided to cap the fleet at around 170, and not acquire the roughly 100 more the Air Force, and more importantly a host of defense contractors who would build them, wanted.

Missile defense has been another hugely expensive military project. And one that many scientists (the ones not directly benefiting from the project at least) doubt would ever work as advertised. Past the huge technical challenge (missile defense is often described as hitting a bullet with a bullet), there was always a nagging question of what missile defense would be protecting Europe from in the first place. Protection from "rogue states" were always cited as the missile shield's reason for being, and this was usually taken to mean "Iran", of course why Iran would choose to launch a missile at Warsaw or Prague in the first place was never really explained.

But this hasn't stopped Obama's critics as using his decision as another reason to attack him, so let's take a quick look at their charges. Claims that we're abandoning our allies in Eastern Europe are weak; that we're 'stabbing them in the back' like the Weekly Standard charges, are just silly. First, there was never a great cry from Europe for us to install a missile shield to protect them from rogue states in the first place. Second, polls showed that a majority of the Czech people were firmly against their country hosting the high-powered radar needed by the shield, support even from their government was iffy at best. Finally the country most upset about the loss of the shield is Poland, which would have hosted the interceptors, and was looking forward to their participation as part of building a strong relationship with the United States (and likely the source of much military-based funding from the US). But Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski says it's wrong to call the decision to cut the program a betrayal of Poland, and that Poland's security interests are still protected by the United States since both countries are members of NATO.

So what about Russia? The Russians were happy to hear of the missile shield's demise, they have been staunchly opposed to the project since it was announced. Some of that opposition was that they didn't want the Americans messing around in what they feel is their back yard (just like the US was upset last year when Russian military forces conducted exercises in the Caribbean). But it goes deeper than that. When NATO started to take on Eastern European countries as members, President Bill Clinton told the Russians not to worry that NATO wouldn't spread to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union - then NATO promptly took in the three former Soviet Baltic republics. But the Russians were told they didn't have to worry about NATO since it was a 'strictly defensive' alliance - then NATO went and launched an offensive bombing campaign against Serbia over their treatment of Kosovo (the first time NATO ever acted on behalf of a non-member). So when the US told Russia they had nothing to worry about from missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, there wasn't a great reservoir of trust on the Russian side.

Russia was happy to hear talk about a 'reset' of relations from the Obama administrations, but they also wanted to see something concrete. Halting the missile shield they bitterly opposed will be a step in that direction. And in response, Russia has suspended plans to move their own ballistic missiles into the Kaliningrad exclave next to Poland. So while that's a positive step, expectations that Russia will now support US-led plans for "crippling" sanctions against Iran over their nuclear program are probably misguided. If anything, Russia is likely to use the United States' decision to shelve the missile shield as reason not to sanction Iran, since (they'll say) the Iranian threat obviously isn't that bad if the United States is willing to stop their installation of a missile shield.
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