by Travis Sharp
Published in The Register Citizen (Connecticut) on September 21, 2009
While media elites and professional pundits love to frame public policy debates as epic battles of conservative and liberal worldviews, judgments about national security rarely boil down to two stark alternatives. The president typically considers at least a handful of distinct options when making any major foreign policy decision.
The U.S. missile defense system in Europe, originally proposed by President George W. Bush, serves as the perfect example. The Obama administration is currently considering whether to pursue, modify, or cancel the system. A decision could be announced as early as this month.
Meant to defend American forces in Europe, regional allies, and the U.S. homeland from an Iranian missile attack, the proposed European system would consist initially of 10 interceptors in Poland, a radar base in the Czech Republic, and another radar base deployed somewhere closer to Iran. Russia fiercely opposes the system and has protested its deployment by suspending compliance with arms control agreements and threatening to deploy new short-range missiles.
In one conservative expert’s words, cancelling the system would amount to “sheer madness [and] make us look weak by giving in to the Russian demand.” In contrast, a liberal organization concluded that going forward with the system “would incur large security and monetary costs, while acquiring no defensive capability in return [and] therefore [would] decrease U.S. security.” Not a lot of middle ground between these two positions, is there?
Real life is a bit more complicated. Moscow’s military threats make clear that Russia perceives the third site to be a menace to its interests. Passing judgment on the legitimacy of Russian concerns, a favorite pastime for some in the United States, accomplishes nothing. Given the ferocity of its opposition, Russia cannot be expected to accept the European missile defense system under the terms proposed by the Bush administration. A different solution therefore is required. Broadly speaking, President Barack Obama possesses two sets of viable choices: the “Bargaining Chip” and the “Gas Mask.”
Under the Bargaining Chip strategy, the United States would scrap the European missile defense plan in exchange for Russian concessions on issues of importance such as unguarded nuclear materials, terrorism, and international trade. President Richard Nixon employed this strategy against the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Capitalizing on Soviet fears of U.S. technical prowess, Nixon signed treaties that permitted both limited deployment of and extensive research on missile defense systems, along with restrictions on strategic nuclear weapons. This was a win-win for the United States. Obama might be able to negotiate something similar today.
Under the Gas Mask strategy, the United States would move forward with the European system in modified form. The strategy is named for President Ronald Reagan, who liked to say that missile defense could serve as a “gas mask” that might protect humankind from madmen armed with nuclear devices.
One option would be to pursue the European system as a joint project with Russia. Moscow has expressed openness to such a proposal; for example, at a July 2007 summit in Kennebunkport, Maine, former Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the possible use of radars based in Russia.
Another option would be to change the technical configuration of the system. So instead of building the stationary ground-based interceptors proposed by Bush, the United States might instead use mobile interceptors deployable by plane; or a ground-based variation of the heralded sea-based SM-3 system; or a dedicated fleet of Aegis destroyers designed to knock out ballistic missiles. The SM-3 and Aegis systems in particular have not only succeeded repeatedly in testing, but also are designed to counter short- and medium-range missiles that are the most realistic threat from Iran.
You will never hear Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann talk about the number of reasonable options on a given policy issue. That’s not their shtick. But we must each do our best to realize that there are often a number of effective ways to solve a given problem if we are only willing to be open-minded and think creatively. This is certainly the case when it comes to missile defense in Europe.