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Saving money on missle defense in Eastern Europe

Published: September 25, 2009
Section: Opinions


When the White House publicly informed the Czech and Polish governments on Sept. 17 that the United States no longer planned to deploy a missile-defense system in those countries that had been approved during George W. Bush’s presidency, much was lost in translation.

Although President Obama insisted last Thursday that America’s “clear and consistent focus” had been and would remain on “Iran’s ballistic missile program,” many listeners regarded the missile defenses as a matter of US-Russian relations. Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stressed that the US would proceed with a more technologically promising missile-defense program, one that was better tailored to countering Iran’s presumed short- and medium-range missile capabilities without threatening the efficacy of Russia’s long-range weapons.

But much of the media and many unsympathetic politicians presented the policy change as a “withdrawal,” “backtrack,” or “reversal” rather than a substitution. Obama lent some credence to these claims by repeatedly insisting that the replacement program would be more “cost-effective.”

Cheers from the Russian government, and dismay expressed by Polish, Czech, and Lithuanian officials who feared being left in what Polish president Lech Kacyznski called a “gray area” between US defense commitments and allegedly resurgent Russian ambitions, together suggested that the American demarche spoke to different people in different ways.

Even at home, commentators disagreed about the basic meaning of the move. Some applauded the end of a wasteful Bush-era program; others joined in the praise but added concerns that Obama’s substitute program would prove no better. Still others agreed with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor that the administration’s decision served simply “to abandon an important foreign policy commitment to two of our key allies.”

Unfortunately, when American leaders adjust our military commitments, they don’t speak English. Defense policies would be much easier to translate and comprehend if they did. But they can’t help but articulate US defense policy in the language of power, a language notorious for its tendency to be translated differently wherever different languages are spoken. Americans aren’t unique in their inability to overcome this language barrier in international relations, but America’s enormous power means that our leaders speak this difficult language very loudly. Because America can’t speak at a whisper in defense matters, it has no choice but to make statements like those of last Thursday that reach many ears and will be translated in many ways.

Eastern Europeans heard the only message that the Obama administration could reasonably have expected its announcement to convey to them: that there will be less of an American defense presence in Eastern Europe than before. Never mind their countries’ NATO and European Union membership, say Polish, Czech, and Lithuanian officials: the real issue is Russian imperialism, and the only way to keep the Russian bear at bay is to slather themselves with the world’s most effective bear repellent, US defense commitments. Obama’s decision necessarily washed some of that protection away.

But Obama cannot be faulted for evincing a hue and cry from Eastern Europe. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Eastern Europe needs to learn to live with the same alliance guarantees as everyone else. Obama’s move is lesson number one.

Obama’s plan should reduce waste. In a sense, Press Secretary Gibbs was right when he argued that Russian concerns that the canceled plan was directed at them “were [and are] unfounded.” He could have made the same point about Iranian concerns. Bush’s missile defense system was too small to counter Russian strategic weapons, but large enough to offend Russia. While America claimed that its defenses were aimed at Iran, Russia pointed out that the range of Iran’s missiles does not extend beyond Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. Since an Iranian attack on these countries seemed unlikely, the siting of the US system appeared better geared to Russian provocation than European protection.

The real purpose of Bush’s system may well have been to stimulate US defense spending. By 2007, with Bush’s presidency winding down and the defense industry windfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan thus placed at risk of ending in the near future, industry lobbyists sought long-term spending commitments. What better way to ensure this than to reopen the missile-defense shaft of the veritable gold mine that was the Cold War?

While the specifics are unclear, Obama’s substitute defense system seems set to be smaller and, with any luck, cheaper than Bush’s. Its design may be better able to support the US claim that it is aimed at protecting European countries from Iran. The media also seemed especially willing to credit Gibbs’ and Russian envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Dmitry Rogozin’s statements that the US move was not part of a US-Russian deal. But Russia’s near-simultaneous announcement that it would not deploy