A Colossal Sign Of U.S. Weakness

Newspapers in Poland and the Czech Republic react to Washington's decision to pull back from deploying a missile defense program in Eastern Europe. "Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back," the Polish tabloid Fakt declared on its front page, while the Czech paper Mlada Fronta Dnes declared, "No Radar. Russia won."
Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served in the office of the secretary of defense and on the national security staff in 2005-2009.

President Obama's decision to cancel plans for U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic is a knife in the back for those countries. The implications for U.S. security and the transatlantic relationship are profound. Critics rightly note that the sudden announcement Thursday sends a dangerous message to allies, both in Europe and elsewhere, who rely on U.S. security guarantees.

Even those who agree with the administration's approach concede that the rollout was clumsy--middle of the night phone calls and little prior consultation. In July 2007, Senator Obama criticized his predecessor for this very thing. The Bush administration, he said, had "done a poor job of consulting its NATO allies about the deployment of a missile defense system that has major implications for all of them."

In addition to the geopolitical implications of this con-cession to Russia, there are several major problems with the administration's plan.

Questionable intelligence on Iran. In his announcement, President Obama stated that his decision was driven by an updated intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs. According to the White House fact sheet, the administration appears to believe that it doesn't need to worry about Iran's possessing an ICBM capability until around 2020.

In the wake of the intelligence community's failures before the Iraq war and its mismanagement of intelligence regarding Iran's nuclear program, it is surprising to see the White House take intelligence about Iran's sensitive military programs at face value. It is naïve to believe that Iran, as it makes strides in its nuclear program, will not also speed up its efforts to develop long-range missile technology or acquire it from a country like North Korea.

This shift in the intelligence community's assessment dovetails conveniently with the views of Ellen Tauscher, the new undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and a former member of Congress, who earlier this year accused supporters of European missile defense of "running around with their hair on fire about a long range threat from Iran that does not exist."

Reliance on unproven technology. Obama and his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill have traditionally claimed that they support missile defense, but only systems that are fully tested or "proven." The problem for defenders of Obama's decision is that the system they now support is exactly what they accused the Bush system of being -unproven.

The White House fact sheet notes that by 2020, the United States will deploy the SM-3 Block IIB "after development and testing." Even James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted on Thursday that the technology is "still to be proven." The ground-based interceptors the Bush administration intended to place in Poland were much farther along than Obama's system.

Again, President Obama is doing precisely what Senator Obama found objectionable when he said, in 2007, "The Bush administration has in the past exaggerated missile defense capabilities and rushed deployments for political purposes."
Exorbitant cost. The administration has not stated what its four-phase approach will cost. General Cartwright in his briefing did argue that relying on SM-3 missiles is more cost effective than using the ground-based interceptors intended for Poland because the individual interceptors are cheaper. What Cartwright did not mention is the cost of the additional radars and bases, as well as development and testing.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office waded into the debate over missile defense options for Europe and concluded that a sea-based SM-3 system--which the Obama administration plans to deploy during phase one--would cost $21.9 billion, much more than the $12.8 billion for the Bush missile shield.

The announcement came prior to a flurry of autumn diplomacy--the president's upcoming bilateral meetings with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev at the United Nations General Assembly and the G-20 in Pittsburgh later in the month, the October 1 sit down between Undersecretary of State William Burns and the Iranians, and the reconvening in Geneva of the START negotiations, in which the Russians have insisted that limits on U.S. missile defenses be part of any new agreement.

President Obama seems to think that by making a grand gesture and downplaying the Iranian threat he will garner good will from the Russians and the Iranians going into these talks, never mind the hurt feelings of long-time allies. More likely, Iran, Russia, and a watching world will see this for what it is: a colossal sign of U.S. weakness.

By Jamie M. Fly
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard