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Commentary

Missile Defense as Bargaining Chip


     
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It has been more than twenty-five years since President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—or Star Wars, as detractors dubbed it. Twenty-six years ago today, Reagan asked, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” It was his great hope that missile defense would “give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Although more than $120 billion has been spent on missile defense since Reagan’s speech, it has yet to fulfill its promise of making nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. However, President Barack Obama may have found a new, more suitable use for missile defense: a bargaining chip.

The Bush administration had previously intended to deploy ten interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, claiming the purpose of the deployment was to counter possible rogue state threats, such as Iran. Although capable of reaching targets in southern Europe, Iran’s longest-range ballistic missile—the Shahab 3, with a range of 2,000 kilometers—poses more of a threat to its neighbors in the Middle East. So the deployments would be more symbolic in nature, intended to give the Poles and Czechs a greater sense of belonging to NATO with a security guarantee from the United States.

But the Russians view such a deployment as a threat to their security, as they believe that their ballistic missiles (which, with China’s, are the only ones capable of striking the United States) are the real target. Such fears are not unwarranted from the Kremlin’s perspective given the eastward expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep—despite the end of the Cold War with Russia less of a conventional military threat to Europe than the former Soviet Union—and the Bush White House’s justification that “missile defense is a substantial contribution to NATO's collective security.”

Reportedly, President Obama sent a secret letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offering to trade U.S. missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for Russia’s greater cooperation in halting Iran’s nuclear program. Although Iran claims their program is for peaceful energy purposes, many believe it is really a cover for the development of a nuclear weapon. Such an offer has the potential to be the proverbial twofer.

First, scaling back missile defense ambitions would be a clear signal that U.S. intentions are not aimed at Russia, thereby reducing their fears and providing one less reason to reawaken the Russian bear. Second, slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions is within the realm of possibility for Russia, which has been instrumental in providing nuclear fuel and technology to develop Iran’s Bushehr reactor. Moreover, Russia appears to share the world’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions. After Iran tested a rocket that could orbit a satellite in February, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Lusyukov said, “It adds to general suspicions of Iran regarding its potential desire to build nuclear weapons.”

If such a trade was successful, the icing on the cake is that the cost to the United States would be relatively minimal. Because the overwhelmingly superior U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a deterrent against any nuclear threat—including those from rogue states—the United States would be giving up something it doesn’t really need. (Due to size, cost, and complexity, ballistic missiles are not likely weapons for terrorists.) In addition, the United States would be giving up something that has yet to be proven as operationally effective.

Given the potential payoff, employing missile defense as a bargaining chip may be the most cost-effective use of the more than $120 billion that has been unwisely expended.


Charles Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.






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