James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
U.S. President Barack Obama has wisely decided to revamp the Bush administration's missile defense plans for Eastern Europe. In doing so, however, he has added to his already long list of political challenges abroad and at home.
The system that President George W. Bush proposed be built in Poland and the Czech Republic was mismatched to the threat it was designed to defeat. It would have deployed interceptor missiles that had yet to be tested under real world conditions to defend against long-range missiles that Iran had yet to develop. Meanwhile, the interceptors would have been useless against the short- and medium-range missiles that Iran is rapidly developing.
Obama's revamped program addresses this more immediate threat. It also leaves the door open to deploying long-range interceptors once that technology is proven to work and the Iranian threat advances beyond the merely theoretical.
Obama now has to manage the optics of his decision. Poles and Czechs worry that his decision signals a softening U.S. commitment to their security. Neither country wanted missile defense on its soil because each feared Iranian missiles. Rather, both countries saw the system as a way to tie themselves more closely to the United States and thereby deter an increasingly belligerent Russia.
That tangible reassurance is now gone. Poles and Czechs are left to wonder how much of Obama's decision was driven by a desire to placate Moscow's vehement opposition to the Bush plan. It doesn't help that Obama announced his decision seventy years to the day after the Soviet troops invaded Poland during World War II.
Obama can solve his East European problem with some diplomatic hand-holding. The tougher job will be winning the public relations battle at home. Critics will accuse him of abandoning missile defense rather than revamping it. Critics will also insist that the Poles and Czechs are right: He axed the Bush program in a foolish and doomed bid to "reset" relations with Russia.
Here Moscow isn't likely to be of much help to the White House. The Kremlin will claim a diplomatic victory and it won't offer any concessions in return. The Bush missile defense plan was always a useful whipping boy for Moscow rather than a genuine strategic threat.
The good news for Obama is that the U.S. military leadership unanimously supports his decision to revamp U.S. missile defense plans. If this doesn't help carry the day, it will be a sign that the broader critique of Obama's handling of foreign policy--that he offers too much soft power and not enough hard power--has begun to resonate with a broad swath of the American public.