President Obama is in Moscow meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with the shadow Vladimir Putin not far from their sight. The highlight of the talks, which are aimed at improving relations with Russia typically soured by the Bush administration, center on nuclear arms agreements, which were at the heart of Cold War negotiations and were one the areas that led to ending the Cold War confrontation. As usual, missile defenses (in this case Bush’s proposed “light” defense in Poland and the Czech Republic) are the centerpiece of these discussions.
A point of honesty is due here. I have been a consistent opponent of missile defenses since the 1960s, when they were first proposed. My opposition has four bases that I can rattle off easily. First, they are expensive; President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), pegged at a helf-trillion or so (when a trillion dollars seemed like a lot) was the mother lode of this expense. Second, they do not work–or at least we have never built one that does against a real live attack seeking to overcome them. This, of course, makes their expense more dubious. Third, even if they were to work, they are easy to overcome, simply by building enough extra offensive systems (which are invariably cheaper than the defenses) to overwhelm them. This problem is progressive, meaning that an arms spiral of offense-defense will always favor the offense. Fourth, they are provocative and destabilizing; if they actually can be made to work, they would effectively disarm the offensive capabilities of the side at which they are aimed. That sounds like a much better idea on the surface than it really is.
All the arguments for defenses deny these points, add the sentimental argument that we have to try to save the “women and chill’uns” (a task best accomplished by avoiding war altogether), and are, in my judgment, wrong.
Back to Moscow. The talks there are focused on two matters. One is the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). That agreement (START I) was negotiated in 1991 and will run out in December of this year. Everyone agrees it is in our interest to keep START going and to reach a new agreement that will reduce nuclear arsenals more; the only disagreement is the levels at which reductions will occur (the Russians want a lower bottom line than do the Americans). The Russians, who have always opposed missile defenses, argue that progress on START requires doing something about the Bush missile defense plan: no BMD agreement, no START.
Should the Obama administration bow to Russian pressure and cancel the Polish-Czech system? A positive answer includes the argument that the system is basically worthless (meaning we don’t give up much) and is aimed at a threat (Iran) that does not exist. From a national security vantage point, not much is being sacrificed. Proponents of the Bush plan suggest that the screen could work and that buckling in to the Russian demands is less than macho. These proponents, mostly Republicans, could make life miserable for Obama were he to accede to Russian demands.
Is there a compromise? Yes. There are two possiblities on the table. One is to move the system: radars in Turkey, launchers in Romania. The Russians are no more enthused about this than they are the Czech-Polish deployment plan. The other is to base the system on American Aegis ships, which are developing a theater missile defense system scheduled for deployment in 2015. The Russians do not object to this possibility, and it poses no additional national defense peril, since the Iranians cannot possibly have a deployable system before then (if they ever do). Declaring a deployment pause until 2015 thus seems a reasonable compromise.
The missile defense issue does not rise to the level of national security concern that, say, Iraq and Agfhanistan do, but improving U.S.-Russian relations may, so the visit is not inconsequential. It would, of course, be much simpler were it not for the persistent missile defense issue, which seems never to go away, no matter how badly one might wish it would. Support of missile defenses has been a nagging thorn in the national security debate for over 40 years now, and it has reared its head one more time.
Let’s hope for a quiet burial this time!
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics. This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq? blog.