The U.S. decision to cancel deployment of a ballistic missile defense system in Central Europe in favor of boosting shorter-range defenses creates immediate policy problems for the Obama administration

: It shreds agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland, undermining U.S. credibility; it may encourage Iranian long-range ballistic missile development; and, although it’s an apparent concession to Russia, Moscow has offered nothing in return.

Barack Obama now proposes a phased deployment plan centered on the Navy’s Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). Beginning in 2011, defenses against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles will be deployed aboard ships, which can move wherever they are needed. Later, upgraded SM-3s may be deployed in Central and Southern Europe, and eventually they may achieve intercontinental intercept capability.

The Obama administration argues that new intelligence assessments indicate Iran is making rapid progress on short- and medium-range missiles but not on intercontinental missiles. Consequently, Obama’s commitment to deploy effective defenses for U.S. and allied forces and civilian populations is salutary, and sea-based systems make sense.

What does not make sense is the administration’s argument that the new intelligence assessment affords us the opportunity to scuttle the Central European deployment in favor of developing a more capable sea-based defense against long-range ballistic missiles. There are two problems with this effort to make the better the enemy of the good.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the first one in a Sept. 20 New York Times article. As a career CIA official, he writes, “I am all too familiar with the pitfalls of over-reliance on intelligence assessments that can become outdated.”

The intelligence report upon which Gates relies today could become outdated as quickly as the one he used when he recommended the Central European deployment in 2006.

The second problem is that the administration ignores the value of getting out ahead of the threat. Determination to deploy American technology in two allied countries with NATO backing might have discouraged Tehran’s pursuit of long-range missiles. Dither, discussion and delay may encourage it, particularly when paired with the West’s similar approach to the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Beyond Iran, Gates writes: “Russia’s attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue.”

That notwithstanding, the perception prevalent around the world is that Washington tossed Moscow a big bone in hopes of facilitating negotiations on further nuclear arms limitations and of energizing the reset of U.S.-Russian relations. Central and East Europeans – NATO members and aspirants – suspect they are becoming victims of Obama’s reset policy. At the very least, they now question the value of American commitments.

This comes in the context of already deteriorating Central and East European confidence in America. In a July 16 open letter to the Obama administration from Central and Eastern Europe, a group of influential former leaders warns, “America’s popularity and influence have fallen in many of our countries.”

Nonetheless, Gates writes, “American missile defense on the continent will continue.” That may be so in Pentagon PowerPoint presentations, but after this reversal, countries will consider carefully before accepting another American missile defense deployment, perhaps to be dumped the next time Washington changes its mind.

Meanwhile, Moscow is no doubt enjoying the spectacle of Americans pushing the reset button again and again.

Despite its shrill rhetoric, Russia never feared the modest missile defenses to be deployed in Central Europe. It disliked the geopolitical symbol of American strategic cooperation with Central European countries, particularly Poland, which Moscow understands must become America’s major European strategic partner in the coming decades. Now – whatever it says or even thinks – Washington has made a major concession without so much as a thank-you from Moscow.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made more demands, calling upon Washington to support Russian membership in the World Trade Organization and to lift barriers to high-technology trade. In Russian eyes, reset works only in one direction.

“We appreciate the responsible attitude,” deadpanned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Nonetheless, warned Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian General Staff, Obama has only changed the basing mode of American missile defense, not terminated it. U.S. negotiators at the Geneva nuclear arms talks should expect further demands to limit missile defense. Moreover, Russia will continue to press for curbs on conventional long-range precision strike weapons, which should undergird American power in the 21st century.

What we will not hear is any serious Russian offer to help curb the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

The only Russian bow in Obama’s direction has been removal of its incongruous threat to deploy SS-26 missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between NATO allies Lithuania and Poland, to counter U.S. missile defense deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland.

It is hard to imagine a worse set of reactions to an American presidential decision – the Sept. 17 announcement was an unequivocal geopolitical blunder.

David Smith is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Va., and director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi, Georgia. He was U.S. chief negotiator for defense and space from 1989-92.  This essay was first published at
Defense News.