Politics & Policy

Indefensible

President Obama knows how to put a smile on faces in Tehran and Moscow: This morning, he announced the abandonment of plans to develop a small missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

This overturns one of the major diplomatic and national-security achievements of the Bush years. When George W. Bush came into office in 2001, the United States lacked long-range missile defenses. Today, Americans enjoy a rudimentary shield against North Korea as it strives to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. There is no such protection for the United States or Europe against a similar threat from Iran, but agreements to build a powerful radar in the Czech Republic and to base interceptors in Poland had put NATO on a course for preparedness.

The decision to undo this progress is disappointing but comes as no surprise. Ablaze with ideological fervor, liberals have long fought missile defense, particularly since Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative. They’re reluctant to oppose deployed systems, which are popular with the public, but eager to take on programs in development. The Obama administration has continued this misbegotten habit by seeking to slash the funding for key missile-defense technologies. For months, the administration has hinted that today’s reversal was imminent.

In a remarkable feat of doublespeak, Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have tried to portray the move as an embrace of missile defense that will enhance our security. Rather than focusing on long-range threats from Iran, they say, the United States now will concentrate on short-range threats.

That’s an example of short-range thinking. A robust system of missile defense never has demanded such trade-offs. Instead, it calls for a sophisticated architecture that counters threats in different forms. Intelligence estimates have forecast that Iran could develop intercontinental rockets by 2015. This morning, Obama and Gates insisted that these estimates are mistaken. If Iran has in fact slowed down its work in this area — a claim that national-security experts have questioned — it may have been in response to American determination to construct a NATO-approved system in Eastern Europe. Today’s announcement may persuade Tehran to reconsider and look for ways to exploit a new vulnerability. As Donald Rumsfeld once warned, weakness is provocative.

Neither Obama nor Gates wanted to say much about the 800-pound bear in the room: Russia. Moscow has criticized the deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe on the absurd grounds that ten interceptors pose an effective challenge to its own massive arsenal. All along, its real goal has been to weaken the influence of the United States and NATO in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Our retreat on missile defense advances Russia’s goal. It betrays a pair of key allies, particularly the leaders who took political risks to support a plan that had met with some skepticism. Five months ago, at a speech in Prague, Obama saluted their efforts: “The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against [Iranian] missiles.” But those are mere words. Today’s actions speak louder. The president has sent a chilling message about American resolve in the face of Russian saber-rattling. Georgia, Ukraine, and the rest of the world have learned a disturbing lesson.

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