Europe's Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense

Politics stops at the water's edge. Or so voters in the Western democracies like to believe. When our security is at stake, we expect elected leaders to think coolly and strategically, advancing the national interest.

Iraq has done much to discredit such hopes. Now comes another American-inspired folly—the brewing transatlantic spat over the deployment of a primitive antiballistic-missile defense system in Eastern Europe. At bottom, it has little to do with security, and everything to do with symbolism and spin. And in the end it is destined to come back to bite its adherents in their collective geostrategic backside.

Begin with the Americans. Republican neoconservatives have long dreamed of a Star Wars missile defense. President Ronald Reagan came up with the vision 20 years ago, and his acolytes have been transfixed by the vision ever since. Now they're determined to build it—in Europe. Never mind that even true believers long ago gave up any hope that such a system could stop an attack by a major nuclear power like Russia. The new scheme is that it might be effective against stray missiles launched by a rogue state such as Iran.

But there are two problems. The first is that hardly anyone outside the camp that stands to benefit financially from the project believes it can work. Critics such as MIT physicist Theodore Postol charge that the Pentagon's optimistic test results constitute "scientific fraud," since the several occasions when an interceptor actually hit an incoming "enemy" missile were contrived under the most ideal testing circumstances. The second problem has to do with the threat, and whether it exists. The Bush administration says Tehran could possess nuclear weapons by 2015. But will it, and could it deliver them, or would it want to if so?

Two East European countries are interested in hosting this retro weapons system—though not because they necessarily believe that it will work, or is needed. Poland, where the missiles would be based, never misses a chance to annoy the Russians, and conservative President Lech Kaczynski will visit the White House this summer to discuss the plan. The Czech Republic has hesitantly gone along, though only after Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg asked for a security guarantee—a move that suggests his lack of confidence in the missile shield as well as NATO. But for both countries, there is real money in the deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is predictably outraged. But it's unlikely that Russian military planners, whose job it is to think in worst-case terms, really believe that a dozen missiles in Poland pose an immediate threat to their homeland. Behind the rhetoric, they know the Americans are right in insisting that the system is in the wrong place to intercept Russian intercontinental missiles. In any case, they also claim to already have developed low-flying hypersonic missiles immune to such defenses.

What's really at play for Moscow is public perception. The nationalist vision of a resurgent Russian superpower is Putin's most powerful political trump card. (After all, he is the sort of fellow who boards submarines, dressed in a navy blue uniform and sailor cap, to have himself photographed punching the launch button for ICBM tests.) American weapons in Russia's former satellite Poland offer Putin a tailor-made opportunity to build himself up with high-profile speeches criticizing the United States as "provocative" and "imperial."

Now come the West Europeans. If they find Russia's bluster unnerving, they consider America's to be distasteful. In speech after speech, Continental politicians—led by French President Jacques Chirac—have accused the United States of seeking to shear off pro-American allies like Britain and Poland and once again split "Old" and "New" Europe, as during the Iraq War. Why, they complain, wasn't the European Union fully consulted? The new ABM system, they say, is evidence that America has not yet mended its unilateralist ways.

Perhaps Europe, without a common foreign policy robust enough to confront Washington with a United position, doesn't really deserve to be consulted. It simply does not have a common foreign policy robust enough to stand up to America. For their part, U.S. military officials rarely give serious thought to Europe—and probably did not this time. Washington has sent out officials in what it infelicitously calls an "aggressive" campaign to convince Europeans. They argue that if the system works, it would protect Europe, too. And if it doesn't, who cares—so long as the United States fronts the requisite billions?

America's single-mindedness misses the big picture. In the wake of Iraq, the United States remains mistrusted and unpopular nearly everywhere in the world. Actions such as this only bolster the critics. Worse, pressing the BMD deployment now—long before Iran has demonstrated that it is indeed a threat—is diplomatically myopic. Cooler geopolitical heads, such as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, point out that the West needs Russian help to pressure Iran into shutting down its weapons program, not to mention keeping it from developing a delivery system. As always, the politics of fantasy plays out with real costs—for everyone concerned.