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FEULNER: High-stakes missile defense

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COMMENTARY:

As I write this column in Chicago, President-elect Barack Obama is in the same hotel announcing his national security team. Let's take a closer look at an early challenge they'll have to face in what he calls "this uncertain world."

The day after Mr. Obama's election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that, if the United States proceeds with plans to base missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, his country might decide to place short-range nuclear-capable missiles near the Polish border.

After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Medvedev yielded a bit, offering to stop his country's deployment if the United States participates in a European security conference before deploying a missile defense. Still, it's clear Russia intends to do whatever it can to prevent the United States and our allies from taking even the most rudimentary steps to protect ourselves against rogue states determined to build ballistic missiles.

It's worth noting that Poland agreed to allow 10 interceptor missiles (completely defensive weapons) on its territory only after Russia invaded Georgia earlier this year. Yet despite its bellicose ways, Moscow claims a missile-defense system would endanger Russia's national security. That's nonsense.

The 10 interceptors to be placed in Poland are intended to help protect Europe against rogue states such as Iran - which is becoming a real danger.

In mid-November, Iran tested a medium-range missile that can fly 2,000 kilometers - far enough to hit European targets. Tehran is working on longer-range missiles, too, and has been seeking nuclear weapons technology for years.

We can't afford to wait until Iran has a missile program, and the bomb, and then start planning our defenses. The time to act is now, before it's too late. Ironically, Russia would actually benefit from the missile-defense system, as it would be able to target missiles heading toward Russian territory, too, which could save thousands of Russian lives. The United States has offered Russia cooperation on linking missile-defense systems, but Moscow balked.

Besides, we're talking about 10 missile interceptors. Ten. Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons. If Moscow used them against Poland, Western Europe or even the United States, this defensive system would be swiftly overwhelmed. (That, incidentally, is why we need a comprehensive missile-defense system, but that's another argument for another time.) It seems Russia is trying to generate a crisis simply to have an excuse to deploy more of its own medium-range offensive nuclear missiles.

The Russian military looked mighty rolling through Georgia, but its units remains weaker than their NATO counterparts. American military sources say Russia may intend to move some nuclear weapons up to front-line units, where they could be used to stop an invasion or to destroy NATO bases anywhere within a 280-kilometer radius.

Russia seems to be looking for weak spots in the NATO alliance. By using missile deployment as a bargaining chip, Moscow perhaps aims to drive a wedge between traditional allies. And it's working.

Consider France, which is a NATO member. The military alliance reaffirmed its support for the missile-defense deployment in mid-November - but Mr. Sarkozy now says he doesn't think the screen will help protect Europe. Other cracks could develop in the months ahead.

Mr. Obama is said to be a good poker player. Let's hope he's also adept at calling foreign policy bluffs and countering threats.

Even if Mr. Obama had intended to call off the deployment in Poland, doing so now would make it look as if he had backed off in the face of Russia's military threats. And the United States can't afford to look weak. The stakes are high, and the world is watching.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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