Another Foreign-Policy Fumble


Another Foreign-Policy Fumble

Dec 1st, 2009 7 min read
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.

In another stroke of foreign policy "genius," in September the Obama administration unceremoniously threw the proposed George W. Bush era, Eastern European-based U.S. missile defense system under the bus.

Not only was it a sop to the Russians and to the Lefties here at home (who are increasingly disenchanted with the White House), but more importantly, it will render us increasingly vulnerable to the growing Iranian nuclear weapon and ballistic-missile threat.

While spinning the decision madly so as to not look weak on nationalsecurity, in the end, it amounts toanother Obama foreign-policy fumble in its Pollyanna-ish effort to make everything right with the world -- despite American interests.

But not everyone thought it was a mistake.


Despite protests to the contrary -- and true to form -- the Obama-viks have been bending over backward since they stormed 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. this year to "re-set" relations with the Bolsheviks, er, Russkies.

Among other aspirations for better relations with Moscow such as arms control, Washington is hoping against hope that Russia will finally come around on helping curb Iran's runaway nuclear and missile programs.

Despite repeated White House attempts to woo the Kremlin by lavishing it with the diplomatic fawning it desperately craves -- almost bordering on stalking -- the love affair Washington had hoped for with

Moscow remains unrequited.

Undeterred by repeated rejection, Team Obama went even further -- this time canning the missile defense system of 10 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) and a high-tech radar slated to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic, which were agreed to during the Bush presidency.

The missile defense system would protect us -- and Europe -- from the burgeoning Iranian nuke and long range missiles threat, but it is reviled by the Russians because it would be constructed in their old Cold War stompin' grounds.

The Kremlin also claimed the system would undermine its nuclear deterrent, which is odd, considering that just 10 GBIs would have a tough time dealing with the hundreds of Russian nuclear capable missiles that could be launched.

Not only does giving in to this Russian demand make us look weak, there is also the delicious irony that Moscow is largely responsible for the proliferation problem today that is Tehran, dating back to the knee-up the Kremlin gave the Mullahs in the 1990s.

In other words, we would not need missile defense against Iran if it were not for Moscow's assistance to Tehran. (North Korea is also to blame for a great deal of Iran's missile progress -- also originating with Russia.)

But while Washington's rollover, um, reset undoubtedly gratified Moscow, not everyone else was -- especially not in Warsaw and Prague, where our allies live in the shadow of an increasingly "growly" Russian bear.


Our Polish and Czech allies, who were close to us under President Bush, now increasingly feel Obama is abandoning them as he seemingly acquiesces to a Russian "privileged sphere of influence" around its periphery.

Indeed, Warsaw and Prague carped about being left in the dark as Washington conducted an internal review of missile defense this summer, despite all three governments having agreed to move forward with the program last year.

Not only did the news of the 180-degree change in course leak to the media before the official announcement was made, but when Washington did break the news, they did it on the 70th anniversary of Russia's World War II invasion of Poland.


This gaffe was not lost on the Poles, who have a keen sense of their history, rife with invaders from the East and the West -- and only added to Washington's faux pas of dithering over which official to send to Warsaw to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II.

So much for Obama's campaign promise of better foreign relations.

The Czechs, who, like the Poles, went to the mat with their own people to get public support for missile defense and also backed other U.S. policies such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, now feel an understandable sense of betrayal. (Even before the missile defense debacle, more than 20 former

Central and Eastern European officials sent an open letter to President Obama expressing concerns about his policies toward the region, especially with regard to Russia.)

Now, the Obama administration has tried to patch things up with a new plan for missile defense in Europe and some shuttle diplomacy by Vice President Joe Biden in late October to Warsaw and Prague to soothe sensitivities, but the new approach looks like it will fall short.


In defense of its call to pull the plug on the Bush plan for missile defense in Eastern Europe, the White House has come up with a new architecture based on a new evaluation of existing -- not new -- intelligence on the Iranian ballistic missile threat.

The Pentagon now insists Iran is moving faster with its short- and medium-range ballistic-missile program than with its long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) efforts, against which the Czech and Polish sites were aimed. This comes despite the belief by many experts that progress in the various missile programs are mutually reinforcing.

Instead, Obama is proposing to place U.S. Navy ships equipped with SM-3 missiles around Europe, in such places as the Adriatic and Baltic Seas and in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, to protect the continent from short- and medium range Iranian missiles.

U.S. ships could also be surged into more forward -- and more provocative -- deployments in the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Israel in the likelihood of an expected Iranian missile strike on Europe or U.S. troops stationed there.

With the proven performance of the Navy's SM-3, there is no doubt this is a solid move to defend Europe against an advancing short- and medium-range Iranian missile challenge, but it does not address the ICBM threat, which has the U.S. homeland in its cross-hairs.

But while details are few, the Obama administration says it has a plan, including the future development of a land-based version of the SM-3 for deployment somewhere in Europe by 2020 and the use of the current GBIs in Alaska and California that thankfully were put in place by the Bush White House.

Unfortunately, that is not going to answer the mail, especially in the near-term.


While Iran may be a threat to Europe, it is a much bigger threat to the United States (and Israel). So while it is appropriate under our NATO responsibilities to defend Europe from Iran, the new plan does not do enough to protect the good ol' United States.

Few contest the idea that if not dissuaded, Tehran will join the once exclusive Mushroom Cloud Club in the next one to three years, considering it already has enough uranium for at least one nuclear weapon.

And though Iran already has short and medium-range missiles that can reach all of the Middle East and parts of Southeastern Europe, the U.S. Air Force assesses Tehran could have an ICBM that can reach us by 2015.

Of course, even well-intentioned intelligence estimates can be wrong, as we all know, especially against hard-to collect targets such as Iran. These are "estimates" after all -- not knowable facts. An Iranian ICBM could be here sooner.

The Obama administration believes that if the Iranian ICBM comes on-line before the land-based SM-3s are in place in 2020, the West Coast, Bushera GBIs give us some breathing room to address the threat.

Not really.

The fact is the West Coast missile defense architecture was designed to protect us against the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, not Iran -- hence the development of a similar system in Eastern Europe.

The West Coast-based systems could hit an Iranian ICBM targeted at much of the United States, but there are questions about coverage for the Eastern United States -- a very likely target, considering the location of New York and Washington.

Worse yet, Obama has decided to reduce the deployment of Alaska and California GBIs from 40 to 30, which would also limit the capability to strike an incoming ICBM, since three to five interceptors would be fired at each enemy missile to ensure a kill.

Bottom line: There is a likely gap in our defenses against an Iranian ICBM strike until the land-based SM-3s are operational.

And speaking of the land-based SM-3 systems, they will require major upgrades to the currently deployed naval missiles to be able to hit an ICBM in terminal flight, which flies in the range of 15,000 miles per hour.

While having the greatest confidence in American engineering, beyond the expense and folly of developing a new system to replace a system that is already deployed and works, there are likely to be challenges in fielding new, "juiced" SM-3s.

And what if those challenges -- funding or technical -- cause its development to lag behind the development of an Iranian ICBM, especially if Iran gets critical, outside assistance? The point of defense is to be technologically ahead of the threat, not behind it.

There is also the concern the Russians (and the Chinese) may try to capture a new, "hopped-up" SM-3 as a counter space weapon in a new round of arms control talks many believe the Obama administration is interested in opening on the weaponization of space.

In other words, between budgets, engineering and its possible inclusion in an arms-control pact, there is a chance there may never be a land based SM-3 system.

Moreover, in the end, if the Obama missile defense proposal goes ahead as planned, not only will it lag the Bush plan's deployment date, according to experts, it may end up being more expensive and, at best, only equally as capable.

So unless you believe in the Easter Bunny, brace yourself for the fact we will likely be facing an Iranian nuclear capable ICBM threat soon -- perhaps sooner than we thought -- and without an effective missile defense for dealing with it.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First Appeared in the Townhall Magazine