Missile Defense WSJ Op-Ed
Obama's Missile Test
FEBRUARY 9, 2009, 11:30 A.M. ET
The Administration wavers on defenses in Europe.
Iran's launch last week of a satellite using a homegrown rocket is another reminder of why Europe needs a missile defense -- and needs to start building it now. Combine Iran's improving missile technology with its nuclear aspirations, and it's a lethal mix. This is especially timely given the debate inside the Obama Administration over whether to walk away from the U.S. promise to provide a defense shield for our European allies.
Iran now joins eight countries with indigenous space-launch capability -- an advance that, on the military side, translates into a step forward for its ballistic-missile technology. The threat isn't immediate, as the satellite was small and lightweight compared to a nuclear warhead, but neither is Europe's missile defense set to be deployed immediately. The reason to start early is precisely to be prepared, and not to have to scramble, if Iran develops its capability faster and the mullahs aren't as benign as some think.
That's why the Bush Administration pushed forward with a Europe-wide missile defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic and built over the next six years. It's also why every NATO country has endorsed the U.S.-led effort. They have done so twice -- first among heads of state in Bucharest in April and again at a meeting of foreign ministers after the U.S. election. NATO also plans to pursue its own missile defenses in conjunction with the Polish and Czech sites.
The question now is whether the Obama Administration will stand by its predecessor's promise or, as is widely anticipated, suspend the European program. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama suggested missile defense was either ineffective or too expensive, or both. His nominee for the third-ranking position at the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy, has indicated that the deployment plans for Europe will be reviewed. In a speech over the weekend at the annual Munich security conference, Vice President Joseph Biden was ambiguous: "We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven to work and cost effective."
Suspending the program would have serious consequences. It would send a signal of American weakness to Iran, which the Obama Administration says it wishes to engage. If the mullahs watch the U.S. back down on confronting its missile threat, who could blame them for assuming it will also back down over its nuclear aspirations?
A suspension would also send a message of American irresolution to Russia, which opposes deploying the antimissile system in countries it considers part of its sphere of influence. This kind of Cold War thinking was on display again last week with the news that Moscow had bribed Kyrygyzstan to close a key U.S. air base for supplying Afghanistan. Backing down on missile defense would only encourage more such Russian behavior.
The U.S.-led missile defense program for Europe is aimed at the Iranian threat, and in no way diminishes Russia's own nuclear deterrent. Moscow knows this, yet it nonetheless threatens to deploy missiles in the Kalingrad enclave between NATO members Poland and Lithuania if the U.S. goes through with the defense system. Moscow has spurned U.S. invitations to participate in the program.
Hillary Clinton's State Department may hope to get more Russian cooperation against Iran in return for disavowing its commitment to Europe. But that's not worth the message it sends about the U.S. willingness to cave in the face of Russian intimidation. Russia may be prepared to cooperate on a modest scale on Iran -- but only if the U.S. forgoes the defense of Europe. That's no bargain.
The biggest fallout of a suspension would be among America's allies in Europe. Poland and the Czech Republic agreed at some political risk to host missile interceptors and a radar. If the U.S. reneges now, these newly free countries will have reason to doubt that they can trust any U.S. security commitments. Other NATO nations are also watching to see if the U.S. will remain a reliable partner against Russia.
Now that he has the responsibility of governing, Mr. Obama may reach a better understanding of the recent technological progress on a defensive shield. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been a firm supporter of a missile defense for Europe. National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a former NATO commander, knows how important the antimissile system is to the alliance.
The new Administration will also have to make a decision about whether to proceed with the planned expansion of the missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska, where 10 interceptors are stationed. Last week's news that North Korea may be planning another test of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile ought to make that an easy call.
Friend and foe alike are trying to take the measure of Mr. Obama, and to test him. Mr. Obama made the nurturing of U.S. alliances a major campaign theme, and, along with trade, the missile defense pact with Europe is the first test of whether he meant it.
(Sorry to my readers, I had this bookmarked and kept meaning to get it up here.)