Despite the outcry that President Obama has sold out the Europeans and caved to the Russians by cancelling missile defenses in Europe, it was the right thing to do. Those defenses were not going to work (or work well enough or soon enough to matter in any major crisis with Iran), and the diplomatic price we were paying for them was far out of proportion to any small gains we might have made by annoying the Russians or reassuring the Czechs and the Poles. (The stated reason for the cancellation — that we’re more worried about medium-range missile threats — is technically accurate, but only for the moment, and sounds more like a rationalization than a reason.)
What really remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration is now going to take the far more important next step of making the Russians and Iranians reciprocate with meaningful actions instead of empty applause. Specifically, we should make clear to Moscow that we’re done dithering over arms reduction, that we do not expect to hear any more protests from senior Russian military leaders about the crucial importance of massive nuclear warheads to Russian security, and that we want significant help in containing the Iranians. More important, we should send a clear warning to Tehran that the reason we do not need missile interceptors in Europe is that we will never, under any circumstances, allow Iran to develop nuclear arms or the long-range means to deliver them.
The Obama administration has an opportunity to turn its decision — which so far seems tentative and even reluctant — into a unilateral display of U.S. strength and confidence, and thereby seize the high ground on arms reduction while warning one of the world’s most recalcitrant proliferators that the game will soon be over. Hopefully, this is an opportunity the president and his advisers will seize.
As an aside, it would be a pity if this is actually part of an inside-the-Beltway maneuver to allow the development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead. But that’s a separate problem — at least for now.
– Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs and a former chairman of the Strategy Department at the U.S. Naval War College. He is currently a research fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.