Meet Dean Wilkening, the Man Behind the Missile-Shield Decision

The Obama administration announced this morning that it will scrap plans for former the Bush team's missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Instead, following the recommendation of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Obama team plans to deploy a different system capable of intercepting shorter-range Iranian missiles, reflecting a need to address a new strategic reality─one that anticipates threats from Iran, not Russia.

If you want to know more about what that they're thinking on this one, you have to take a look at Dean Wilkening. According to The New York Times, Obama's team relied heavily on research by the Stanford University physicist, who, they report, earlier this year presented unnamed government officials with his findings that Turkey or the Balkans─not Eastern Europe─would be the best places to set up a missile-defense system to deal with the country most likely to cause trouble: Iran.

Wilkening is a smart guy. He's been sounding the alarm on the need to rethink strategic deterrence for well over a decade. "In the post-Cold War era, potential U.S. adversaries will no longer be backed by a state (i.e., the former Soviet Union) posing a strategic threat to the U.S. homeland," Wilkening wrote in a 1995 report he put together for the RAND Corporation. At first glance, the emphasis on nonstate actors may sound like the typical "end of history" rhetoric of the '90s. But Wilkening was more nuanced than that. His insight: all nuclear politics is regional, not local or global. In Nuclear Deterrence in a Regional Context, written for RAND the same year, he aruged that the U.S. "must learn to live in a world with more nuclear powers, albeit small ones, and must adjust its foreign policy so that regional involvements occur only when the most important U.S. interests are at stake." If he's now advocating for a defense system situated around Iran, not Russia, then that's a pretty clear indication about where he thinks the most important U.S. interests are now at stake.

That doesn't just mean he wants the guns pointed in Iran's direction. In a report he wrote in August 2008 at Stanford, Wilkening made clear he was very aware of how the politicized issue of a missile-defense system figured into diplomatic negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions:

One way of instituting a version of the lease–take-back concept occurred in 2007 with the signing of the Agreement for Nuclear Cooperation (123 Agreement) between the United States and Russia. This agreement allows for the disposition of U.S. origin fuel in Russia, for an appropriate fee and under the right environmental and nonproliferation conditions. This opening might eventually allow shipment of spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants to Russia. Additionally this agreement opens the door (at least in theory) for instituting joint lease–take-back agreements between a U.S.–Russian consortium and consumer countries. Fresh fuel would be supplied from the United States or the Russian IUEC, and the spent fuel would be taken back to Russia. The supply logistics and payment terms and conditions have yet to be worked out. However, such joint projects most likely will have to wait for a warming in U.S.–Russian relations. To a large extent such joint proposals will depend on a resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis to the satisfaction of both the United States and Russia, and may be held hostage to other foreign policy concerns, e.g., U.S. missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe. In time, this proposed arrangement could be extended to other fuel suppliers and fuel reprocessors, joining to offer multiple-source lease–take-back nuclear fuel supplies.

Your move, Russia? Maybe, maybe not. This summer, he published a darker assessment of the Iranian nuclear program─and, more to the point, of Russia's ability to do anything about it:

In summary, we believe the Iranian ballistic missile threat is moreadvanced, and should be taken more seriously, than is suggested by theanalysis presented in the [East-West Institute's Joint Threat Assessment] report and, in particular, in theTechnical Addendums to that report. This conclusion does notimmediately lead one to conclude that a particular US, Russian orinternational response, e.g., diplomacy, deterrence or ballisticmissile defense, is better than another. This requires furtheranalysis...However, we are less sanguine about the ability of these diplomaticmeasures to prevent the proliferation of IRBMs and ICBMs to Iran. Itmay be too late. Nor is it clear that Iran is critically dependent onforeign sources for advancing its ballistic missile program.

It seems the Obama team may have shifted into damage-control mode.

Meet Dean Wilkening, the Man Behind the Missile-Shield Decision | News