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.
Why aren’t we farther along? Here are three reasons. First, we operated within the restraints of the ABM Treaty for too many years. Second, missile defense is hard — a hard scientific task. An expert says, “I don’t want to take anything away from the wizards at Apple who give us iPhones and other wonderful gadgets. But that is easier than getting one missile to strike another, each hurtling at 15,000 miles per hour in the vastness of space.” At the same time, missile defense is doable. Human ingenuity can achieve it.
Which brings us to the third reason: a deficiency of political will, or national will. The country will have to want missile defense, in order to get it. More about this in due course.
The Japanese want it — and they are getting it. A Wall Street Journal article from December tells us that “Japan now has the most sophisticated missile-defense system outside the U.S.” Officially, they want the system as a check against the North Koreans: The Norks lobbed one over Japan in 1998. Unofficially (I am reliably informed), they want the system as a check against China. That is the stronger concern.
The Israelis have an interest in missile defense too — seeing that missiles are regularly lobbed at them. Their missile defense goes under the names Arrow, David’s Sling, and Iron Dome. Israel is a tiny country — which makes missiles all the harder to defend against. There’s not much time between “flash and bang,” as the saying goes: A neighboring enemy launches one, it’s in Israel right away.
Unlike many Americans, Israelis tend not to be childish when it comes to missile defense. They know missiles are serious business. They had Scuds launched at them by Saddam Hussein. They donned gas masks and protective clothing, and went into sealed rooms. The Israeli government — whoever is in power — feels keenly the need to protect Israeli citizens.
What was it Jeane Kirkpatrick said, in a comment quoted earlier? “No president has the right to ignore the common defense.” This sentiment is solid in Israel, of necessity; it is less so here. This is in part because of “our blessed location,” to use George Washington’s phrase. (Kirkpatrick quoted him.) We have the benefit of great oceans on either side of us. The Israelis barely have a stream. And missiles are becoming quite good at traversing oceans, fast.
No one outside the U.S. has done more than the Japanese and the Israelis about missile defense. But others are rapidly gaining interest. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt — they have all bought Patriot (a basic system). What do these countries have in common? They live in the vicinity of Iran, and their minds are concentrated.
How about the American mind? We will explore this in tomorrow’s installment, the last. Thanks so much, and see you soon.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.