While I remain highly critical of the optics of yesterday’s decision to change course on missile defense in Eastern Europe, timed as it was on the 70th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland and coming after a year of bellicose actions from Moscow, it would be remiss not to point out that General Brent Scowcroft strongly disagrees.

He issued the following statement this morning: “I strongly approve of President Obama’s decision regarding missile defense deployments in Europe. I believe it advances U.S. national security interests, supports our allies, and better meets the threats we face.”

As in those old E.F. Hutton commercials, when General Scowcroft talks, I listen.

Scowcroft was, of course, National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Less famously, he’s the Chairman of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board and served as Chairman of the Board of the Council itself from 1998-1999.  While there may be four or five people whose views on international security I take as seriously, there’s simply no one I respect more.

So, what’s behind his thinking on this issue?  Well, he was against the  previous  plan from the outset. In an April 2008 conversation between Scowcroft, Zbiegniev Brzezinski, and David Ignatius recounted in America and the World, Scowcroft comments on the Bush plan:

I’m puzzled by the project. The president has announced that we cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. And yet we ostensibly are building a defense against those weapons, apparently assuming they will be built anyway. So I am confused about the purpose of the deployment. Also it’s not clear to me whether its goal is to defend Europe or the United States. And unless the technology is different, I’m not sure you can do both at once. (p. 192)

It should be noted that Scowcroft very much agrees with the consensus on the urgency of preventing a nuclear Iran. In July, he told VOA’s Andre de Nesnera that “if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, it is not so much that they have a few nuclear weapons, but that the response in the region will be a nuclear response and you will have countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and so on, doing the same thing.”

Scowcroft is not only a Realist in a party that has been dominated of late by neoconservatives but a true believer in a deterrence theory developed over decades that seems to have been set aside since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  He has long been a leader — sometimes a lonely one in the Republican foreign policy Establishment — in opposing missile systems and missile defense systems that increase the theoretical possibility of “winning” a nuclear war rather than providing mutually assured destruction that makes starting such a war unthinkable.  He was the leader of the so-called Scowcroft Commission (formally, “The President’s Commission on Strategic Forces”) in 1983 which recommended the deployment of “a force of small, single warhead ICBMs” to greater ensure survivability of a first attack and thereby “greatly enhance deterrence of nuclear attack and support NATO’s strategy of Flexible Response.”

See also this snippet from the January 1990 archives of the Washington Post:

National security adviser Brent Scowcroft is pressing for a new U.S. arms-control proposal aimed at eliminating two major U.S. and Soviet strategic missile systems, but has yet to overcome opposition by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and win the endorsement of President Bush, U.S. officials said last week.

Aside from shedding light on Scowcroft’s position on the current issue, it provides eerie foreshadowing of the debate in the run-up to the Iraq War, which Scowcroft strongly advised we avoid.

Defending Peace and Freedom: Toward Strategic Stability in the Year 2000‎, a book put out by the Atlantic Council Working Group on Strategic Stability and Arms Control back in 1988 and edited by Scowcroft, James Woolsey, and Thomas Etzold, takes a skeptical view of missile defense. Further, among its key findings is that “We believe, first, that our actions should server our needs and purposes, not simply react to Soviet decisions and behavior. Consequently, we explicitly reject mirror-imaging of Soviet or Eastern forces in shaping Western nuclear and conventional forces (p. 16).” This was a group effort, to be sure, but it’s a sentiment that largely rejects the view of critics of yesterday’s announcement — myself included — who argue on the basis of optics. If sea-based systems make the United States and its allies even slightly more secure than land-based systems, it does not — according to this logic — much matter if the Russians think they “won” or the Poles and Czechs think they “lost.”

More recently, Scowcroft co-chaired the Independent Task Force on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy, which this past May called on the U.S. and Russian governments to build upon the START process and further draw down their nuclear arsenal.  WaPo’s Walter Pincus reported,

The congressional panel is calling for deployment of missile defenses against regional and limited long-range threats such as those posed by North Korea and Iran. But Scowcroft yesterday said he thinks U.S. missile defense is one of the issues leading China to modernize and increase its strategic nuclear force. He suggested that the Obama administration seek discussions with Beijing on the nuclear strategies of both countries, adding that it is too early to enter treaty agreements because the Chinese long-range force is so much smaller than that of the United States.

This thinking obviously applies to Russia as well.  Whether it makes much sense to Western observers, the leadership in Moscow clearly believed the proposed systems in Poland and the Czech Republic constituted a direct threat to their security.  Obama’s move yesterday would seem to end that obstacle to a more cooperative relationship.

As for myself, I remain agnostic on the technical and strategic merits of the move to sea-based systems vice the previous land-based plan.  Nathan Hodge and Robert Haddick do a good job lining up the pros and cons and there are just too many variables and unknowns.  And, frankly, I’m rather dubious of the threat of either a Russian or an Iranian nuclear attack, which strike me as woefully overplayed. 

So, were we simply starting anew with two options, the Bush plan and the Obama plan, it would be a coin flip.  And General Scowcroft’s weighing in on the side of the latter might well tip the scales for me.

My concern, however, is that we weren’t starting from scratch but rather from a status quo where the United States has quite recently promised two allies that we’d put a system in their country that the extant governments considered a significant boost to their security (although, as noted in my earlier roundup, this is not a view universally shared in those states).  Further, the Russians have been both demanding that we rescind that deal and behaving badly toward its neighbors.  In my view, the optics very much matter in this case.

With General Scowcroft on the other side, though, I hold that opinion with rather more unease and less confidence than I did this morning.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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