Fareed Zakaria on Obama's Missile-Defense Problem

By canceling plans to station antiballistic-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Re-public, President Obama has traded fantasy for reality. Keep in mind a few facts about missile defense. Since the 1980s, the United States has spent well over $150 billion to develop such systems. That's more than the total cost of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo mission to the moon. Yet in 25 years the program has not produced a workable weapons system, something unprecedented even in the annals of the Pentagon's bloated budgets. A group of leading scientists, including 10 Nobel laureates in physics, wrote a letter to Obama in July, arguing that the Polish and Czech interceptors "would offer little or no defensive capability, even in principle." That's why the Bush administration proposed deploying the system only in 2018, by which point, it hoped, the thing would actually work.

Then there are the threats that these systems are meant to guard against. The nuclear-arms expert Joseph Cirincione pointed out to Congress recently that the threat from ballistic missiles "has steadily declined over the past 20 years. There are fewer missiles in the world today than there were 20 years ago, fewer states with missile programs, and fewer hostile missiles aimed at the United States. Countries still pursuing long-range-missile programs are fewer in number and less technologically advanced than 20 years ago." These numbers are indisputable.

The Iranian weapons program is a potential danger—but to Israel and the Gulf states, not Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama's new proposal—to station short- and medium-range-missile interceptors on ships in the region—is a workable system attuned to the actual threat. This is reality-based defense policy.

So why does it leave a bad taste in the mouth? Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser and someone who has always been attentive to Eastern Europe's security, supports Obama's decision but says the administration handled things poorly: "In the way it conveyed the decision, it humiliated two staunch allies that had gone out of their way to embrace U.S. policy." Missile defense has never enjoyed much public support among Poles or Czechs, presumably because they don't believe Iran is planning to lob missiles at them. But Brzezinski notes that "for the governments of those countries, it had become a test of American reliability and support. The administration should have recognized the importance it had taken on."

The timing of the announcement, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, symbolized the botched diplomacy. Poland's prime minister re-fused to take a midnight call from Obama and then Hillary Clinton, referring the latter to his foreign minister.

The Europeans' real fear, of course, is Russia. The Poles and Czechs worry that the United States is getting soft, and will allow Moscow renewed influence in Eastern Europe. Russia itself declared missile defense a roadblock to cooperation with Washington. But to continue with a bad policy simply because the Russians don't like it is not a sensible basis for U.S. strategy.

Will Russia now become more helpful on Iran? Moscow does not feel the same urgency about Tehran that the United States does. Confrontation between America and Iran would hike the price of oil—bad for the United States and China, but good for Moscow. A military attack would probably result in Iranian retaliation in Afghanistan and Iraq, keeping U.S. forces bogged down there.

And yet the Russians are being moderately helpful. They have deliberately delayed delivery of an antiaircraft defense system, the S-300, to the Iranians (and also refused to sell them the more advanced S-400). Russian language on Iran has toughened. I met with President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow last week, and he went out of his way to insist that Iran must cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Russia was opposed to any nuclear-weapons program, and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements about Israel were "unacceptable." "The basic framework of U.S.-Russian relations should be that we want good, cooperative, and productive relations," says Brzezinski. "If Russia wants to flirt with Venezuela, fine. And if Poland wants closer security ties with the West, that should also be fine." In the long run, a better working relationship with Russia could mean lowered tensions everywhere, starting with Eastern Europe.

On missile defense, the Obama administration did the right thing for the right reasons, in the wrong way. It needs to fix the fallout and move on.