Second Day: A Missile Decision Based On Facts And Values

The Obama administration did its best to portray the decision to reconfigure its missile defense posture in Europe as a choice dictated by the hard imperatives of technology, the assessment of the intelligence community, and the prerogatives of national security. Senior military officials explained to reporters that the timing of the announcement was simply a factor of the Pentagon budget calendar - a decision on whether to endorse the Bush administration's program of record - an advanced radar system in Poland and ten high-altitude missile interceptors in The Czech Republic was about due. Iran has put a lot of effort into building effective short and intermediate range missiles and, within a few years, will have the capability of firing a few hundred at locations across Europe and the Middle East. 10 interceptors at a cost of $75 million each are no match for hundreds of Iranian warheads. Patriot missile defense systems, supplanted by mobile, transportable Aegis radar systems, stationed perhaps in Turkey and in Israel and in Poland would provide a more effective actual defense against actual threats.  Should Iran improve its missile capability, the Pentagon can quickly ramp up its long-range interceptor research, a senior official said yesterday.

Officials insisted that, when the Pentagon's recommendation was presented to the President this weekend,  there was little discussion of larger implications, and the timing of the announcement - originally scheduled for next week - was not aimed at offering an incentive for Russia to cooperate with the U.S when it begins to negotiate with Iran in October. "It's not like we sat in a room and gamed all of this out. We're not that smart," a senior administration official said. The official pointed out that the decision to junk the larger missiles was made before Iran decided to accept an offer to talk.

But the larger implications were apparent: this was more than a policy change. It was a narrative change. Barack Obama has a thing about narratives. Some he likes, and others he doesn't. He doesn't like the narrative that views Russia as an intractable enemy, that conceives of foreign policy as a game of symbol manipulation, where "projections" of strengths and demonstrations of abilities create metaphysical umbrellas of deterrents; where changing a policy that pleases the Russians is tantamount to a concession of some sort. - or a surrender - or a disgrace. Obama disdains zero sum games; he's trying to operate in what he sees as a non-zero sum world where interests can be aligned and accomodated. But the truth is that the administration aligned its assessment of Iran's ballistic missile capabilities with Russia's.

The Bush administration was planning to station the missile interceptor in Poland on the basis of intelligence that concluded that Iran could pose a threat to the United States by 2012; Russia had always insisted that Iran was spending most of its resources on perfecting short and intermediate range missiles guidance systems. New intelligence developed by both countries suggests, according to U.S. officials, that Iranian warheads won't be able to menace the continental United States until 2015 at the earliest, and probably not until 2020, given the lengthy process of developing and testing long-range missiles. So -- the views of Russia and the United States are now in synch. In fact, intelligence agencies from both countries are working on a joint estimate of Iran's missile capabilities and are soon to start work on a joint study of Iran's nuclear proliferation efforts, an administration official said. This sort of cooperation is remarkable - perhaps remarkably naive, if the old narrative still has power. When it comes to Russia, the administration isn't pursuing a "reset" strategy for the sake of being nice; Obama wants to sign a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Dmitry Medvedev; he wants Russia to curtail its technological assistance to Iran; he wants Russia's UN vote in favor of sanctions on Iran.

Removing a Bush administration provocation - a scarecrow - that gave Russia a pretext to avoid serious negotiations made basic sense from the day Obama was inaugurated. The governments of Poland and the Czech Republic were always skeptical that they'd actually get the missiles, having listened to Obama's skepticism during the presidential campaign. That's one reason why the Czech Republican hasn't ratified the treaty yet - it kinda knew that it would be modified - it knew this before the Obama administration found intelligence to confirm its strategic worldview. As for whether the two countries who negotiated the treaty with the Bush administration are destined to be pawns of the great powers' chess match, the answer, for the time being, is yes. From the Obama perspective, the treaty itself preyed on the two countries' historical memories. Practically, Poland and the Czech Republic are well protected against current threats. The removal of the provocative, aggressive radar system removes one reason why Russia might have decided to become more aggressive towards Poland.