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Obama’s Missile Defense Decision: No, It’s Not Appeasement

by @ 12:36 pm on September 18, 2009. Filed under Barack Obama, Europe, Foreign Affairs, Politics, Russia

Not unexpectedly, the Russians seem to be reacting positively to President Obama’s decision to abandon a missile defense system that would have been placed in Poland and the Czech Republic:\

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin praised President Obama Friday for canceling a plan for an antiballistic missile system in Eastern Europe that Russia had deemed a threat, suggesting that the move would lead to improved relations between their countries.

“I very much hope that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others,” Mr. Putin said.

The Russian officials did indicate that the Kremlin would withdraw its threat to base short-range missiles on Russia’s western border, in Kaliningrad.

Also on Friday, in another sign of warming in relations, NATO called for new cooperation between the alliance and Moscow, including possible coordination between antimissile systems.

Most of Europe also seems pleased with the developments:

Germany saw the move as a sign of hope for improved NATO relations with Moscow, frozen after Russia sent troops into Georgia last year and further damaged by its decision to recognise two breakaway Georgian regions.

“I believe that this decision today is a sign of hope to get over difficulties with Russia,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country has been a strong supporter of Moscow, told reporters in Brussels.

With her at a European Union summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy described it as “an excellent decision from every point of view and I hope that our Russian friends will attach importance to this decision

And, while the press in Poland and the Czech Republic seems to be calling this decision a “betrayal,” the political leadership seems to feel otherwise:

“I received President Obama’s words and declarations with great satisfaction,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said following telephone talks with Obama.

“The words I’ve heard from President Barack Obama — after the change in the decision on the matter of the missile shield — Poland has the opportunity to gain an exclusive position,” Tusk said.

In an effort to reassure his allies, Obama said the new US approach to build a more mobile system targeting Iranian short-range and medium-range missiles initially using sea-based interceptors, would make them safer more quickly.

“I wouldn’t say it is a failure of Poland, I will also say that because where we are geographically, we’ll always have to work on our security,” Tusk said, underscoring his nation’s proximity to Russia.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus also brushed off any concerns about damage to relations with the United States.

“This decision of the American government did not come as a surprise to those who closely followed the signals over recent months,” he said in Prague.

“I’m 100 percent convinced that this decision of the American government does not signal a cooling of relations between the United States and the Czech Republic,” Klaus said

Of course, the reaction in the United States is hardly as reasoned. Most of the American right seems to be in lockstep behind the idea that the decision to end the project before full development was an indefensible abandonment of trusted allies, and we’re hearing much the same thing from Republican politicians:

Republican Congressman Mike Pence (IN) harkened to the days of the Cold War and warned the administration against bowing to a burgeoning powerhouse, Russia, “The Obama administration is continuing a policy of appeasement at the expense of our allies. History teaches that weakness and appeasement invite aggression against peaceful nations.”

(…)

Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia lamented, “[T]his sudden release, apparently, of new intelligence information that has not come the way of the Hill, is somewhat puzzling to say the least. Congress has received briefings on intelligence about the threat that Iran poses…So we are we’re very very concerned about what seems to be a sudden turnaround and a shift in terms of the analysis of intelligence we received.”

But, when you look at the decision rationally, it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t an abandonment at all:

A decision not to build these two bases does not constitute the “abandonment” of Poland or the Czech Republic. As I noted yesterday, both are members of NATO, a mutual self-defense pact that requires member states to come to the aid of other members if attacked. Beyond that, there is not indication that I have seen that there will be no defense/security arrangements with these countries, just that there has been a decision not to build some specific installations.

Moreover, both Secretary of Defense Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear that Europe would be included in whatever missile defense plan succeeds this one:

[W]e have now the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors, in northern and southern Europe, that near-term can provide missile defense coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others.

In the initial stage, we will deploy Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptors, which provide the flexibility to move interceptors from one region to another if needed.

The second phase, about 2015, will involve fielding upgraded, land-based SM-3s. Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 and other components of the system. Basing some interceptors on land will provide additional coverage and save costs compared to a purely sea-based approach.

Over time, this architecture is designed to continually incorporate new and more effective technologies, as well as more interceptors, expanding the range of coverage, improving our ability to knock down multiple targets and increasing the survivability of the overall system.

As Steven Taylor said, [c]ould it be that the announcement yesterday was what it purported to be, i.e., a decision based on technical and intelligence grounds and nothing more?

Finally, Jazz Shaw makes a point that’s worth taking seriously:

As much as some of my hawkish friends might wish it to be so, Russia isn’t going away any time soon. And they have no interest in our posing as the only bully left on the playground. This is a big, complicated world and there are other powerful players on the board with their own diplomatic and security interests to bear in mind. Much of the animosity we seem to draw overseas comes from this overbearing attitude and we don’t need a return to confrontational, “our way or the highway” diplomacy.

Exactly.

The idea that we can just return to Cold War era containment and ignore the fact that the world has changed since the Soviet Union collapsed is just absurd. Russia is a force to be reckoned with, no doubt, but they are hardly the expansionist threat that they were during the Cold War and, if they do return to the Great Power status they had before World War One, there really isn’t much we’re going to be able to do about it.

13 Responses to “Obama’s Missile Defense Decision: No, It’s Not Appeasement”

  1. MichaelW says:

    Wait, weren’t you questioning why I was bringing Russia into the subject?

    And why do you so cavalierly dismiss concerns about the abandonment of Eastern Europe and the emboldening of Russia? Are those good things or do you really believe that the points are hogwash and not deserving of consideration?

    Finally, what exactly was the point of giving up something for nothing? Can you honestly claim that Obama made the best decision here?

  2. Michael,

    Since the missile system was aimed at the Iranian threat and not the Russian bear, the only question is whether the alternative that the Joint Chiefs have proposed would better meet that threat.

    And, yes, I still don’t think that bringing Russia into this analysis is either proper or makes sense.

  3. MichaelW says:

    Then why are discussing Russia above?

    The fact is, scrapping the missile program was a total sop to Russia to get their help with Iran. Except Obama never tried to get any such concessions and just unilaterally abandoned the US position. Now, even Dems are wondering what the point was (and notice the explicit connection to Russia):

    Some members of Obama’s own party, however, had a simple question for the administration: if this was a return to realism, and a concession to Russia’s long and vocal opposition to the missile program, what, exactly, was the U.S. getting in return for fundamentally changing it?

    Chuck Schumer and Ed Markey were pretty up front about the expectations:

    “It is no secret that this missile defense shield has been a thorn in Russia’s side,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer in a blunt statement belying the White House’s insistence that the shift was based purely on intelligence and technical considerations.

    “President Obama is clearly demonstrating his willingness to reset relations between our two countries, and the Russians should return the gesture<’ Schumer said. “It is time for Russia to join our push to impose stricter sanctions on Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons program.”

    Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a leading backer of Obama’s push to reduce the number of nuclear weapons around the globe, had equally high expectations. “By removing a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, this shift makes it more likely that we can secure Russia’s support to get tough on Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.

    And as for Iran, the IAEA is now saying that Iran is a nuclear threat:

    The IAEA announced, almost simultaneously with the US unilateral withdrawal of its planned eastern European anti-missile shield, that Iran now has the capability and materials to build a nuclear weapon. Why did the IAEA come to that conclusion?

    • The IAEA’s assessment that Iran worked on developing a chamber inside a ballistic missile capable of housing a warhead payload “that is quite likely to be nuclear.”

    • That Iran engaged in “probable testing” of explosives commonly used to detonate a nuclear warhead — a method known as a “full-scale hemispherical explosively driven shock system.”

    • An assessment that Iran worked on developing a system “for initiating a hemispherical high explosive charge” of the kind used to help spark a nuclear blast.

    Additionally it noted, “The agency … assesses that Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device (an atomic bomb) based on HEU (highly enriched uranium) as the fission fuel.”

    So, again, how was scrapping the program a good idea? It seems awfully myopic and dangerous IMHO.

  4. MichaelW says:

    Bah! Bad editing. The last paragraph beginning with “So, again …” was mine and supposed to be outside the blockquote [/hangheadinshame]

  5. Michael,

    Iran’s nuclear program is not the issue, it’s Iran’s missile program that the defense system was supposed to be aimed at, and that it’s successor will be aimed at as well.

  6. MichaelW says:

    Doug,

    The nuclear program and the missile program are the same problem — i.e. nuclear missiles. Look at the IAEA report again.

    • The IAEA’s assessment that Iran worked on developing a chamber inside a ballistic missile capable of housing a warhead payload “that is quite likely to be nuclear.”

    • That Iran engaged in “probable testing” of explosives commonly used to detonate a nuclear warhead — a method known as a “full-scale hemispherical explosively driven shock system.”

    • An assessment that Iran worked on developing a system “for initiating a hemispherical high explosive charge” of the kind used to help spark a nuclear blast.

    As for any “successor”, the only thing mentioned is short-range capabilities that would have to be (most likely) in Turkey and which would not be underground, thus making them much less effective.

    Make no mistake, Obama is strategically dropping our guard here in order to win over Russia and thwart Iran. Only Russia’s not playing and Iran isn’t slowed down one bit.

  7. Michael,

    First of all, I’d note that over the past three years we’ve seen several different UN, IAEA, and CIA reports about Iran’s nuclear capability which not only contradict each other in their conclusions, but also contradict themselves. I’m honestly not even sure that there’s any reason to believe any of them.

    Second, the missiles and the nukes are related but not identical. The point of the system that was to have been based in E. Europe was to combat a perceived threat from Iranian ICBM’s capable of reaching Europe and beyond. The point that Gates and the Joint Chiefs made yesterday is that the ICBM threat isn’t really there and we need to develop a defense system that will address Iran’s short, medium and long range missiles, none of which could reach anywhere near Poland or the Czech Republic.

    Finally, while I agree that it’s not in anyone’s interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons, I’ve got to wonder if there’s anything we can really do to stop them from acquiring them if they want them short of a war that would be far more costly than either Iraq or Afghanistan, which we can’t really afford right now, and in which victory would be no means be assured.

  8. MichaelW says:

    First of all, I’d note that over the past three years we’ve seen several different UN, IAEA, and CIA reports about Iran’s nuclear capability which not only contradict each other in their conclusions, but also contradict themselves. I’m honestly not even sure that there’s any reason to believe any of them.

    Franly, Doug, I think you’re capable of reading past the politics contained in those reports if you want to. The current IAEA report does not serve the current agendas, and is in line with what all the other intelligence reports are saying, so it tends to be much more believable. Either way, is there really any doubt about what Iran is trying to do?

    Second, the missiles and the nukes are related but not identical.

    For all intents and purposes, they really are. In fact, the threat of a nuclear missile is by far the greatest threat.

    Finally, while I agree that it’s not in anyone’s interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons, I’ve got to wonder if there’s anything we can really do to stop them from acquiring them if they want them short of a war that would be far more costly than either Iraq or Afghanistan, which we can’t really afford right now, and in which victory would be no means be assured.

    Well we could develop, perfect and implement a missile defense system. That would seem to do the trick without war. But that has now been scrapped (and, no, the proposed alternatives – should they ever get implemented – would not provide anywhere close to the same security).

  9. Michael,

    That’s what we’re doing.

    I suggest you take a look at the transcript of the press conference with Gates and Joint Chiefs:

    http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4479

    What if the administration actually thinks that the missile shield won’t work and would be a waste of resources? Is that really so hard to grasp?

  10. MichaelW says:

    What if the administration actually thinks that the missile shield won’t work and would be a waste of resources? Is that really so hard to grasp?

    I think that is a genuine concern, but it still doesn’t justify just giving up with getting something for it. If it’s so unlikely to work, then why were the Russians so perturbed? Either way, I just don’t see how it was in our best interests to give it for nothing in return (and perhaps worse).

  11. MichaelW says:

    “without getting something in return” [Jeez, serious brain freeze today]

  12. NatetheGrate says:

    What’s wrong with a missile defense system, assuming it could ever work? How the Russians even have the nerve to object is amazing. Do they really think the United States is going to attack them? Ridiculous. Look, the Russians haven’t yet fulfilled their obligations under the treaty that ended the Georgia war, and that seriously undermines any claims they might make of their commitment to peace in Europe. Obama’s willingness to publicly withdraw the shield plan is worrying because it seems to be rewarding Moscow for its belligerent behavior in Georgia. Let the Russians show they’re serious, then we can talk.

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