America Is Back—but for How Long?
Political Polarization and the End of U.S. Credibility
Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was canceling plans for the missile-defense network in Europe first proposed by the Bush administration in 2007. The program would have deployed a radar system in the Czech Republic linked to other radar stations on the continent and a base of ten interceptor missiles in Poland. Its purpose was to shield Western Europe and the United States from medium- and long-range missiles launched from Iran.
In the days since the decision was announced, a number of critics have suggested that the move reflects the new administration's lack of seriousness about the missile threat and perhaps a worrisome proclivity to try to please Russia, which had protested against the planned architecture.
This is not the first time the Obama administration has come under fire for its approach to missile defense. Last spring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reduced funding for the program by about $2 billion a year, leading some conservatives to argue that the United States was sending the wrong message to countries with potentially adversarial missile programs such as China, Iran, and North Korea.
As I first described in Foreign Affairs ten years ago, the debate over missile defense is often mired in ideology more than it is grounded in real fact. Today is no different -- and ultimately, the criticism over the Obama administration's latest move is not compelling. Take the budget for missile-defense programs: after reaching $12 billion a year during the Bush administration, the U.S. military now spends about $10 billion annually. Although some may see this figure as a sign of the United States' declining resolve to counter offensive-missile threats, it is 50 percent greater than what Ronald Reagan devoted to missile defense under the Strategic Defense Initiative, more popularly known as "Star Wars."
It is hard, therefore, to view President Barack Obama's cutback as seriously lessening the United States' commitment to the long-term goal of defending itself and its allies from missile attack. As a combined system, missile defense remains one of the Pentagon's largest acquisition programs in size and cost. Moreover, the recent budgetary cuts are not distributed carelessly across all programs -- while some suffered, others were sustained and even expanded.
It is likely that the missile-defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland would have worked -- at least against a small and simple attack without a large number of warheads or decoys. The plan relied on technology similar to that already deployed in Alaska and California, whose systems are designed to protect against a possible launch from North Korea. Although not trivial, the expected cost of the program -- around $6 billion over the next decade or so -- was not huge. But it would have taken several years to come to fruition and would have protected Western Europe against only the first half dozen missiles in any future attack, not to mention leaving parts of southern Europe entirely unprotected.
The Czech-Polish proposal, however, was not the only missile-defense program Obama inherited when he entered office. The Pentagon has several ideas in various states of development, production, and deployment: the Patriot missile (for a ground-based defense against missiles in the final or "terminal" stage of flight); Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a ground-based defense against mid-flight threats of modest range; the system in Alaska and California, a ground-based defense against long-range missile threats; the U.S. Navy's Aegis/Standard missile system against missile threats over or near the sea; and the airborne laser and the kinetic-energy interceptor, which are designed to work against missiles in their boost phase just after launch.
With last week's decision, the backbone of U.S. missile defense in Europe appears to have shifted to the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), a ship-based antiballistic missile that can also be adapted to sites on land. The Obama administration's strategy for announcing the change was suboptimal, as it failed to anticipate some of the criticisms and concerns on both sides of the Atlantic and buried much of the technical detail for the program in its releases online and in the media. Administration officials have made some useful correctives, however: Gates suggested that SM-3 missiles could someday be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a resolute commitment to sustain alliances with both countries in comments at the Brookings Institution last week.
NATO politics are another concern. Many NATO members support the general idea of a missile-defense system, yet they wonder why Washington originally decided to pursue the issue primarily as a two-track process with the Czech Republic and Poland -- two new, modestly sized members of the alliance -- given the strategic implications for NATO as a whole. Wisely, the new approach appears to have involved the United States' NATO allies more fully.
It is worth emphasizing that Russia's objections to the Czech and Polish sites were without strategic merit. Russia has several thousand ballistic missiles; in the unthinkable event of a nuclear war between it and the West, the United States' defense system in Central Europe would be like using a flyswatter against a bazooka. Furthermore, Russia has the technology to deploy the kind of countermeasures that would render a relatively small defense system entirely useless. Russia, therefore, should receive no special treatment for its behavior, and NATO should avoid making any long-term commitments about the future of missile defense in Central Europe.
That said, for a new administration seeking to "reset" relations with Moscow, it makes sense, at least for now, to avoid what had become a major strain in U.S.-Russian relations. Although much of the blame for escalating the missile-defense dispute lies with Russia, the United States has contributed, too. Last year, during the height of Russia's crisis with Georgia, Dana Perino, the Bush administration's press secretary, said that the United States' decision to formalize the missile-defense plan with Warsaw and Prague was "mostly coincidental." She, along with others inside the U.S. government, thus gave some credence to Russia's otherwise baseless fear that the system was designed against its interests.
It is doubtful that Obama's cancellation of this program will immediately inspire much help from Moscow on Tehran's nuclear program or any other policy issue. But even a modest improvement is nothing to sneeze at, provided that the United States sends a clear message to Moscow not to threaten or bully new NATO members in the future.
There is one problem with the Obama administration's missile-defense policies, however: boost-phase systems are no longer being seriously developed. Such systems act early in an enemy missile's flight, depriving that missile of the chance to deploy decoys that can fool many systems -- such as the U.S. sites in Alaska and California, the SM-3, and the proposed Czech-and-Polish system. In April, Gates canceled both of the United States' two main boost-phase programs: the airborne laser and the kinetic-energy interceptor. Critics of the Obama administration's missile-defense policies should focus their concerns on this set of decisions. It may, for example, make sense to purchase more than just the one airborne laser system that is being retained as a test platform, even if the original plan to buy 20 was too much.
On balance, though, the Obama administration is making sound and solid decisions on missile defense. It is robustly funding and deploying the kinds of systems that are most responsive to the threats the United States is facing now and is likely to face in the near future.