09/17/2009 - 11:53

A first take on Obama's missile defense rethink

Thomas R. Pickering

Thomas R. Pickering

The co-chair of the International Crisis Group, Pickering served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1989-1992), India...

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President Barack Obama's decision to terminate U.S. missile defense activities in Poland and the Czech Republic will be met with mixed feelings in Eastern Europe. Currently, I'm in Moscow. And here, there was an immediate positive reaction among Russians. They have always believed that the missile defense system that the George W. Bush administration wanted to deploy in Eastern Europe was inappropriate to deal effectively with potential Iranian missile attacks on the United States and Europe and, instead, focused on the Russian nuclear deterrent--especially once expanded and provided with the appropriate supplementation.

On the other hand, Poles and Czechs, still deeply affected by the long post-World War II Soviet occupation and the overhanging presence that followed, saw the defense sites, which would be manned with U.S. military forces, as a political card that reassured their bond to the United States and NATO. It also provided them with concrete evidence of the U.S. commitment to their defense, something they could call on if Russia ever decided to threaten them with pressure and/or military action.

In effect, Obama has complemented what is clearly a European stand-down in NATO enlargement. That process of slowing down--or perhaps even ending for a significant period of time--the extension of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine, along with ending plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe, was meant to lessen confrontation with Russia while accepting the negative reactions in Poland, the Czech Republic, and perhaps other areas of Eastern Europe.

But missile defense, always a mixed blessing in U.S. domestic politics, has not suffered a radical setback so much as a more sensitive rationalization. That is, the driver will no longer be a serious preoccupation with deploying missile defense as soon as possible to address North Korean and Iranian potential threats. It also seems clear, however, that the Obama administration will at least continue to look seriously at the possibility of missile defense, focusing less on a frenetic commitment to early deployment and more on bringing it to its full technical capability.