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On Missile Defense, Obama Strikes a Strange Balance


President Obama has made disarmament the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He has done this while simultaneously trying to argue that he supports robust missile defenses. As the administration struggles to conclude a new arms-control agreement with the Russians, he is finding that striking a balance between these two positions can be very difficult.

There is a powerful group of disarmament advocates in Washington that has been opposed to missile defense for years and now includes some of the chief proponents of the president’s disarmament agenda. Currently leading this group is missile-defense skeptic Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund, which is bankrolling a media offensive using other organizations — such as the Glover Park Group, Think Progress, and the National Security Network — to advance the administration’s agenda on Capitol Hill and in the press. It seems that “getting to zero” isn’t cheap.

Another prominent missile-defense skeptic is Philip E. Coyle, III, a former Pentagon official who has criticized just about every aspect of U.S. missile-defense policy over the last decade. Mr. Coyle has been nominated by President Obama to serve as associate director for National Security and International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.

Coyle made a name for himself by questioning whether missile defense is technically possible, contradicting a proven track record of repeated successes by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. In a 2009 Arms Control Association presentation, he described the agency’s tests as being “scripted for success.” He has also questioned whether rogue regimes are even interested, let alone capable, of attacking the United States and its allies. In testimony last year in front of the House Armed Services Committee, he stated, “In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles.” Given Iran’s recent tests of missiles with increasing ranges and its successful launch of a satellite into orbit, Mr. Coyle’s questioning of the intentions of rogues such as Iran is incredibly naïve.

There is enough concern on Capitol Hill about Coyle’s views that a hold has been placed on his nomination. Some will argue that a position in the Office of Science and Technology Policy shouldn’t deserve much attention, let alone concern. It is true that this is a part of the White House that traditionally has not played a key role in major policy decisions. However, it is likely that an individual like Mr. Coyle would be unable to resist the urge to use his position to attempt to influence policy debates about issues, such as missile defense, that he has worked on for years.

This administration has tried to make the case that it supports effective missile defenses. It is thus surprising that the administration has chosen to nominate someone such as Philip Coyle to a White House position.

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.