President Barack Obama's scuttling of George W. Bush's plan to deploy a missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland—or, more particularly, the way he scuttled it—amounts to a remarkably shrewd bit of politics and statesmanship.
The decision, which he announced this morning after completing a six-month review of the program, removes the biggest obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations—a step that could clear the way for cooperative measures on a wide range of international issues—without scrapping the general idea of some sort of "missile shield" for Europe.
Bush came up with the plan to put 10 anti-missile interceptors and radars on Czech and Polish soil in 2007, and the Russians have been clamoring about it ever since. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Bush of trying to upset the balance of power.
Bush's top officials, including his (and now Obama's) defense secretary, Robert Gates, tried to persuade Putin that such fears had no basis. The interceptors would be configured to shoot down missiles launched by Iran, not by Russia. And in any case, a mere 10 interceptors were hardly a counterweight to the thousands of offensive missiles in Russia's nuclear arsenal.
The argument was correct but also beside the point. The Russians were worried not so much about what 10 interceptors could do but rather about what they represented—a U.S. military foothold in the heart of Eastern Europe.
The anti-missile weapons that Bush wanted to put in the Czech Republic and Poland were the same weapons that he was installing, as part of the larger missile-defense program, in Fort Greely, Alaska. These weapons, known as GBI (for Ground-Based Interceptors), are huge multi-staged rockets, about the size of Minuteman ICBMs, and, like them, are deployed in blast-resistant, underground silos—literally dug and hardened into the soil. The GBI complex in Alaska is spread out across 600 acres and includes a large X-Band radar system and 200 military personnel, as well as a security presence along the surrounding roads.
Russia has long been nervous about the expansion of NATO into its former imperial realm. The prospect of a large, fixed military installation in this realm—not quite a nuclear weapon (the GBI carries a "kill vehicle" that smashes into its target rather than a nuclear warhead) but, still, a weapon related to the U.S. nuclear program—was going a step too far.
When Obama met with Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July, the missile-defense plan still rankled; the Russian leaders said that they liked the new American president's words (the "reset button" and so forth), but they were still waiting for his deeds.
Obama's announcement this morning constitutes a substantial deed.
Secretary Gates, in a follow-up press conference, emphasized that, contrary to a Wall Street Journal headline, Obama was not "scrapping missile defense in Europe." Rather, he was adjusting the program. Rather than building huge, fixed GBI complexes in Eastern Europe, he would buy more small, mobile SM-3 missiles and place them, initially, on the U.S. Navy's Aegis cruisers.
At some point, no earlier than 2015, the SM-3s might also be deployed on ground bases in northern or southern Europe, "in consultation with allies," Gates said, "starting with Poland and the Czech Republic." (Notice: He didn't say the anti-missile missiles might be based in those two countries—though that's not out of the question—only that those countries would be the first consulted on the matter. A more likely base, if Iranian missiles are the concern, would be Turkey, though Gates didn't say that, either.)
The SM-3s are capable of shooting down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, unlike the GBI, which is designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Obama and Gates said this morning that this feature is appropriate, since recent intelligence indicates that Iran is making faster progress on developing shorter-range missiles and much slower progress on ICBMs.
In other words, Gates claimed, Obama's plan provides "a better missile-defense capability" for Europe—a plan that is more flexible, less vulnerable, and better suited to the actual threat than the plan that he himself advocated three years ago under President Bush.