Obama’s chance to really fix something

As America’s strategic dialogue with Russia shifts into reverse over our planned missile defense in Eastern Europe, President-elect Obama has an opportunity to curtail this foolish turn of events, but only if he doesn’t fear being labeled "soft" by hardliners hell-bent on protecting that astronomically costly boondoggle.

After spending vast sums, America now fields missile defense sites in Alaska and California that even ardent program defenders admit are rudimentary. If the envisioned program is completed deep into the next decade, missile expert Scott Ritter estimates the total cumulative cost could top a trillion dollars.

In return, we’ll own a missile defense network easily overwhelmed by any major attack theoretically launched by Russia or China, and one easily fooled by even a minor attack mounted by a North Korean-sized entity.

Of course, none of that would matter whatsoever because America’s invulnerable ability to strike back and totally decimate potential attackers would dominate any regime’s decision-making. Such capability would nonetheless be useless in the face of the most likely threat we face: a nuclear device smuggled into the United States and detonated by terrorists.

So why do we keep spending? Simple industrial greed, combined with the archaic mindset of Cold Warriors still living in the 20th century — where they should have remained.

Don’t get me wrong. I support close-in missile defense, especially Aegis systems on U.S. naval ships.

Also, while I don’t care for Washington scaring China over our missile defense cooperation with Japan, I do understand Tokyo’s short-fuse worries over North Korea. So if China wants to eliminate any chance of Japanese missile defense being employed against itself, Beijing’s rulers should get off their collective rear-ends and do something real about ending Kim Jong Il’s disastrously destructive rule.

I also support America providing long-time ally Israel with whatever it wants in missile defense capabilities vis-`-vis Iran, to include basing U.S. military personnel — a serious first — at a radar site in the Negev desert.

But I have a problem with the Bush administration’s push to stick missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic — allegedly to counter the budding threat from Iran. In terms of credible scenarios, that dog won’t hunt.

Positing Iran’s strategic attacks against the one collection of great powers that has historically favored its positions with regard to the United States strains all credulity. Then there’s simply the advantageous business and investment ties between continental Europe and Iran.

Unless I’m missing some "300"-like legend of past Pole-Persian enmity, this decision is logically interpreted as reflecting industrial greed or the desire of hardliners to pick some new fight with Putin’s Russia — same difference. Because Poland hurriedly signed the controversial defense agreement with Washington right on the heels of Moscow’s intervention into Georgia’s civil strife, either storyline fits the "big war" crowd’s desire to avoid adapting to the long war against violent extremism.

Which gets me back to my original point: Why are we picking this fight with Russia now? The planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe serves no purpose as to Russia’s vast remaining arsenal except to provocatively suggest America is aiming to alter the continental correlation of forces — which it can’t.

In reply, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev now threatens to target those planned sites with conventional missiles, putting our newly elected leader in the position of choosing between "caving in" to Russian pressure or standing up to Russia’s idiotic threat to our equally pointless provocation.

With two wars and a global financial crisis in full swing, this is the "crisis" on which American strategists want our future president spending precious diplomatic capital? For now, President-elect Obama smartly resists taking any hard position on the controversy. Of the many bad Bush-Cheney decisions to be unwound in coming months, few will usefully reduce Obama’s worry list more deftly than his wise handling of this issue.


(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center. Contact him at tom@thomaspmbarnett.com.)