The Missile Shield Wrongly Obsessed Russians

Barack Obama has finally called time on the Bush administration's controversial plan to build a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe. The announcement caused widespread consternation. The Czechs and the Poles, who had hoped that the system would somehow protect them against Russian aggression, were appalled. (The Polish prime minister refused to take a call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informing him of the decision.) Conservative Americans, who counted on the missile shield to contain Iranian missiles, decried Obama’s move as dangerous, or even treasonous. Only Russia, which believed that the system would somehow impair their ability to use their own nuclear missiles, was delighted. The real question, though, isn't whether Obama is right or wrong about the system's efficacy. (He's obviously right.) The real question why everybody cares so much. How did a piece of technology years from reality work its way to the center of so many diplomatic crises?

To begin with, it's important to remember that while plenty of missile defense systems capable of hitting short- and medium-range missiles exist (remember Patriots and Scuds?), none are yet capable of knocking out long-range ballistic missiles. So far, that is a theory that looked good on network-news computer graphics but that never actually existed. The idea was for radar stations in the Czech Republic to monitor missile launches from the Middle East, and for interceptor rockets in Poland to shoot them down en route to their targets. The interceptor rockets, though, don't even work; after years of trials and billions of dollars of research, a prototype tested in Alaska still can't reliably tell real missiles from decoys or kill missiles that change course midflight, as truly sophisticated weapons can. Not that it would have mattered: no country in the Middle East actually possesses the kind of missiles that could reach the United States, or even Northern Europe. No, what ultimately killed off missile defense was the news that Iran has nothing like the kind of long-range, Soviet-style ballistic missiles that the system was supposed to stop.

So why the fuss? Simple: a missile-defense system is a great symbol—far more potent than any practical weaponry could ever be. Among Eastern Europeans, it became a totem for American protection against a resurgent Russia, even though the system was never designed to guard against Russian missiles. The basic point is that, by design (and remember we're talking about something that never got beyond the drawing board), the system was designed to intercept ballistic missiles in the stratosphere and low orbit. A simple glance at the map shows that such intercontinental ballistic missiles are not what Russia would fire at Poland, just a few hundred miles away.

For their part, Russians worried wrongly that the missile interceptors would be the first step in a U.S. effort to interfere with nuclear missiles aimed at the United States—undermining the principle of mutually assured destruction that still underpins the nuclear strategic balance. In the unlikely event, Russian ICBMs would fly a more direct path—over Greenland and the North Pole. Interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic don't affect them.

Nonetheless, irrational as it may be, the system somehow became an indicator for the Eastern Europeans of just how much America loved them. (The defensive capability was years away, but the hope that it would deter Russian aggression was real.) By the same token, the Kremlin saw it as an indicator of Washington's intent to expand its influence across the former Soviet Union, which was a real Bush-era strategy. But neither point of view had any relationship to the specifics of the missile system that became its symbol.

In fact, the irony of Obama's announcement is that Europe (and, for that matter, European Russia) will probably end up much better defended against an Iranian missile. Instead of bogus Polish interceptors, Obama is going to fund smaller missile-defense systems designed to knock out rockets during the boost, or takeoff phase, when the rocket is slower, hotter, and easier to hit. That's best done from somewhere much closer than Poland—for instance from the territory of NATO-member Turkey or U.S. allies Iraqi Kurdistan or Kuwait.

Even the fallout from the scotched program is misguided. Analysts in the United States are speculating about what promises Washington extracted from Moscow for the deal, and the Russian press is crowing about Russia's triumph in the strategic tussle over missile defense. But the reality is that Obama's announcement was carefully timed to deny Russian President Dmitry Medvedev any claim upon victory: Medvedev is due to visit to the U.S. next week, and the announcement seems to have taken Russian officialdom completely by surprise. Just two days ago, Medvedev was still decrying U.S. strategic ambitions in Russia's backyard—apparently preparing for a showdown in Washington—and the foreign ministry refused to comment for nearly a day after the announcement. Eastern Europeans may see the hand of appeasement in the decision, believing that their interests have been sacrificed to great-power politics. (It wouldn't be the first time.) But that's just history talking.

The diplomatic reality is that there's little that Russia can threaten the U.S. with that Washington would take real notice of. For better or worse, the U.S. can and has ignored Russian objections when it really wants to do something it considers a vital interest—such as bomb Belgrade, invade Iraq, or turn a blind eye to Israel's Gaza offensive. But there is one thing Moscow can offer that the U.S. needs, and that's continued Russian support in the United Nations Security Council for sanctions against Iran. True, Russia did support the last two rounds of U.N. sanctions with no sweeteners, so it's not clear if there has been any quid pro quo.

Obama didn't abandon missile defense because Russia objected to it—he abandoned it because it was a superexpensive red herring that owed more to a strategic fantasy than to on-the-ground realities. Like Ronald Reagan's Star Wars before it, missile defense was an idea that promised to change the strategic balance of the world. But unlike Star Wars, which turned out to be the most successful hand of strategic bluff ever played (counterescalation drove the Soviets into bankruptcy), missile defense caused problems only for Washington—and possibly goaded Moscow's aggression toward its smaller neighbors. If Obama won concessions from Moscow in the process of scotching an unworkable weapons system, chalk it up as a double score.

For Obama, there are no downsides to scrapping missile defense. In Eastern Europe, polls show that as many people were disturbed and opposed to the interceptor plans as felt protected by them. In the Czech Republic, only 38 percent supported the plan, and in Poland support slipped from 58 percent in 2007 to 41 percent this year. In any case, public support for America has been steadily slipping across the countries of what Donald Rumsfeld called "new Europe," as the Iraq War soured and evidence emerged that they had been used as sites illegal torture of terror suspects. A recent poll by the German Marshall Fund showed that approval ratings for Obama in "old Europe" stand at over 90 percent in Germany and 81 percent in the U.K.—while in Poland and Romania it is 53 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Paradoxically, the demise of missile defense will make the U.S. more, not less, popular: Russia will be reassured, and maybe less tempted to menace Georgia just to show Washington who's boss in the region. Swapping a theoretical defense system for real diplomatic advantage seems like a good deal.

Join the Discussion