Why Gates and Obama Dropped The Bush Shield

Are we fighting the cold war? Or is this something new?

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland during World War II. In terms of politics, for a president allegedly obsessed with czars, his seeming capitulation to a would-be czar -- Vladimir Putin -- is not helpful. That's how hawks jumped on the news, breaking in European papers overnight, that the White House had decided to abandon a missile defense program first proposed by the Bush Administration in the waning months of the former president's term. From their point of view, the construction of a new NATO-operated radar station in the Czech Republic and a small missile site in Poland projected American strength and resolve and rewarded allies who had hung tough during the war on terror. The Bush administration's fervor was abetted by clients in government, like the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, and by defense contractors who are hoping to design and build a missile defense shield for the United States. In terms of geopolitics, it was a zero sum game: empower NATO at the expense of Russia and convey a message to Iran that the U.S. was serious about protecting its allies from their developing threats. From a ground-based perspective, the Bush administration read intelligence from the DIA and CIA and concluded that the threat to Europe from long range Iranian missiles was real, and Iran intended to wield the threat at its soonest convenience. Representative of the reaction is this statement from Sen. John McCain: "This decision calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe." At a simpler level, Obama's being called an appeaser, and Democrats are being accused of wanting to weaken the country. This syllogism is a gut response to the presence of missiles -- as in -- missiles in allied countries pointing at Russia GOOD...taking them away....WEAK.....Russia...BAD.

Well, sort of. For one thing, the Poles and the Czechs weren't crazy about the missiles. Far from seeing America as a leader, the citizens of these countries tend to be more skeptical of American power than almost every other NATO country. The government of the Czech Republic hadn't even ratified the agreement. The government of Poland seems to be the more upset of the two. There's also an illogic to the appeasement charge: because Russia opposed the missile sites, it does not follow that the U.S. decided to remove them to "appease" Russia's concern. Obama's premise is that the missiles -- leaving aside the open question about whether the technology works and whether it's cost effective -- were an irritant and a way for Russia to gum up negotiations on more important, more consequential decisions, like the stringency of economic sanctions against Iran, missile sales to Iran, and treaty negotiations. The White House is spinning the move as a "decision," not a "concession," which implies that it does not expect anything in return from Russia -- not now, at least.

In 2008, Americans elected a Democrat who does not, in his heart, believe that foreign policy has to be zero sum. Though the new center-left consensus exemplified by Obama's undersecretary of defense for policy, Michelle Flournoy, is generally more hawkish than the liberal base of the Democratic Party, there is broad agreement with the left about the technological (un)workability of missile defense, and a worldview that does not reward or punish nations based on their willingness to share intelligence or house CIA black sites. From a practical point of view, Obama's chief advisers believe that the promises to Poland and Czech Republic were thin and exploitive; scarecrows -- and, made out of straw, easily defeated by countermeasures. The policy focus at the Pentagon, a focus endorsed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, is one where the money ought to chase emerging threats, not legacy threats.

For all the talk that the U.S. is abandoning its allies -- another gut-wrenching buzzword that does not necessarily comport with reality -- the U.S. is actually spending money on interceptor technology that it plans to deploy in Europe over the next decade. It reflects an interpretation of the intelligence -- and intelligence is always open to interpretation -- that the near-term missile threat from Iran is not as acute as the last administration claimed it to be -- at least not to the point of using unproven technology to defend vulnerable regions in Europe. The short-term threat from medium and short-range missiles is greater than the threat from long-range missiles; ergo, it makes sense to build a shield that comports with the threats that the intelligence community -- the balance of it, anyway -- foresees. The gamble here is that enough of the missile defense shield will be in place before Iran gets its act together. From a geopolitical perspective, poking Russia and Iran in the eye isn't worth the hassle.

Press reports had already begun circulating in Eastern Europe on the likely decision several weeks ago.

"There was an internal consensus that, once the decision was made by the president earlier this week, we should inform our NATO allies immediately," an administration official said. "No point in keeping them guessing."

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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