The rollout of President Obama’s new missile defense policy was “compressed” because news was leaking and leading to rampant speculation, Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs told an Atlantic Council conference call this morning. As a result, there was “not as much consultation” with our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic “as we would have liked.”
This corroborates what Michèle Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told The Cable.
What happened was that some of the consultations that we had abroad started creating some leaks with erroneous information about what the plan was. It started creating a dynamic of erroneous speculation and reporting. The president was very ready to make a decision, so we decided that rather than have six weeks of erroneous speculation, we would go ahead and roll out the decision and correct the record for what this actually is.
The problem, however, was that the quick announcement — Obama reportedly had to roust his counterparts in Warsaw and Prague from bed to notify them — caught reporters and analysts flat-footed. It’s not just that the announcement came on the 70th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland during World War II, which either simply would not have happened or would have at least been cleverly finessed in the announcement speech with even halfway competent staff work, although that was bad enough.
The substance of the plan itself was widely misapprehended. What was actually, as Vershbow put it, a “new approach” was largely received as a “scrapping” or “abandoning” of the previous plan. As General Pat O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, explained on the call, the Aegis SM-3 simply vastly exceeded expectations in recent tests. So, we suddenly had an already-proven system capable of achieving most of what the theoretical system it is replacing might have done, at a fraction of the cost and under a much faster timetable. And, as a bonus, with a vehicle that could not possibly considered a potential offensive threat to Russia.
It’s unclear, incidentally, how much this could have been avoided. The plan, I gather, was to announce this several weeks later, so the staff work and behind-the-scenes soothing of hurt feelings and courting of reporters that would normally have happened was barely begun, if that. Still, if the point of rushing the announcement to avoid the story being controlled by those who disagree, it doesn’t make sense to do so without getting your own story together first.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.