SDI at 30, Part IV

A curious incident in March 2012


Editor’s Note: This week, we are running a series by Jay Nordlinger on missile defense. It has been 30 years since Reagan gave his speech announcing the project. What was his vision, and how has it fared? For the first three parts of the series, go here, here, and here.

You will remember a curious incident in March 2012. Obama is talking with Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s outgoing president. Their conversation is caught on tape. Obama says that a number of issues can be “solved,” and “particularly missile defense.” But “it’s important for him to give me space.”

The “him” was Vladimir Putin, the incoming president, and always boss.

“Yeah, I understand,” says Medvedev. “I understand your message about space.” Obama continues, “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Then he pats Medvedev’s arm knowingly and reassuringly. Medvedev says, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

What did Obama have in mind? The coming years may tell us.

An Associated Press report from last month tells us something interesting — something about the strange politics of missile defense. Under Obama’s plan, the AP explains, our interceptors “would be upgraded gradually over four phases, culminating early next decade with those intended to protect both Europe and the United States.”

Russia opposes the plan, says the AP, “especially the interceptors in the final stage.” Russia “fears those interceptors could catch its intercontinental missiles launched at the U.S.”

Well, don’t Americans have an interest in “catching” the missiles launched at them?

Remember what Obama did in April 2009: The day after North Korea conducted a missile test, he canceled the interceptors that President George W. Bush had ordered for Alaska.

Now flash-forward to this very month: March 2013. North Korea again conducts a missile test. And, immediately, the administration announces that we will proceed with those interceptors after all. They should be ready in 2017. So, we have lost four years.

And that’s the way it has gone with missile defense, since the Reagan speech of March 1983. Fits and starts. The pattern is, Republicans go, and Democrats halt, or slow.

If not for the ruling Kims in Pyongyang, would Democratic presidents ever move? In its missile-defense issue of February 1999, National Review had an editorial. It began, “Thank the North Koreans. Their launch of a three-stage ballistic missile on August 31 . . . has finally concentrated minds on the need for missile defense. President Clinton has asked for a $6.6 billion increase in missile-defense spending.”

We have not wasted these 30 years since Reagan’s speech — but we have not taken full advantage of them either. We have a rudimentary missile defense. We are not completely naked unto our enemies. But we have nothing like a reliable ability to defend ourselves against missile attack. Presumably, North Korea, Iran, and other bad actors will progress beyond the nuclear Stone Age, someday.