- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

Moscow overplayed its hand when, the day after Sen. Barack Obama was elected president, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened Europe by stating he would place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Washington continued with its plans to deploy a European-based, ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. This was a direct challenge to the United States and to NATO, and the world is watching for President-elect Obama’s response.

The idea of deploying such a missile defense system in Europe to protect Allied and U.S. interests unfortunately has been anything but noncontroversial. While the debates regarding Iran, costs, capabilities and Russia have been spirited, it is clear current facts reinforce the need for the system that the U.S. has been advocating to Europe for nearly two years and that the Europeans concurred in April.

This week, Tehran claimed to have test-fired a new ballistic missile. This is the third such announcement already this year and the fifth since Bush administration officials started discussing the need for a European-based ballistic missile defense system, or “third site,” with the Allies and Russia.

Actions such as these affirm Iran’s intent to develop its ballistic-missile capabilities, thus validating the U.S. argument that Iran is pursuing a program and that NATO’s territory is vulnerable to ballistic-missile attacks.

To fully field and deploy the system in Europe will cost approximately $3.5 billion, a rather manageable price to pay over a four- to five-year period. For those that balk at the cost of this system, it is worth soliciting their reaction to this question: What is the price tag on having Europe and the United States held hostage and open to blackmail by Iran or a terrorist group that may have WMD-tipped, ballistic missiles?

Since 2006, the U.S. has successfully concluded three flights of a three-stage interceptor rocket. The European interceptor does not vary significantly from that successfully tested, Pacific-based interceptor although a stage has been removed so that the European interceptor can actually connect with its target, given the shortened flight times of a missile launched from the Middle East. It is simply a canard for those to say the “system” is unproven because the “two-stage” rocket has not been flight-tested yet.

U.S. officials have repeatedly made clear the third-site system is not designed against Russia, cannot catch a Russian-launched missile, and cannot possibly threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Russian officials have admitted as much and have acknowledged that Iran’s ballistic-missile program is a threat to the region and to Russia.

However, the U.S. and Russia disagree on when Iran may actually successfully field such missiles (the U.S. believes sooner rather than later; Russia believes the opposite). Despite this disagreement, Washington has offered wide-ranging confidence-building measures as well as opportunities for cooperation with Moscow on missile defense information sharing. To date, Moscow has not formally accepted or denied these proposals. Instead, it has used the issue of a third-site deployment to incite Russian nationalism and lob threats toward Europe - and, sadly, to deny itself a chance to be part of a meaningful European security project.

Allies are rightfully nervous about Russia’s threats but are equally concerned about an Iran with possibly nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. In April in Bucharest, NATO leaders agreed that options for NATO’s complementary portion to a European missile defense system (to ensure the protection of the entire NATO territory from ballistic-missile launches from the Middle East) would be presented at the April 2009 Summit in Strasbourg.

Given these factors, Mr. Obama must adopt the only prudent way forward on missile defense, which requires the following steps be taken no later than the April 2009 NATO Summit:

cAnnounce firmly and convincingly full support for the overall U.S. ballistic missile defense system and urge the deployment of the third site as soon as practicable.

cWork with Congress to ensure full funding for this system. This will be important for the program’s viability but also to help win Polish and Czech parliamentary approval.

cMeet with the Czech and Polish ruling and opposition leaders to state the administration’s support for the system and encourage immediate parliamentary passage.

cDo not fall for Russian traps and rhetoric. Keep on the table the wide-ranging cooperative initiatives Secretaries Robert M. Gates and Condoleezza Rice have offered to their counterparts. Remind Russian leaders that they, too, have admitted in public that Iran’s ballistic-missile program is a threat and state that partnering with Europe and the U.S. on missile defense is in Russia’s national security interest.

If the new U.S. administration does not stand strongly behind this third-site initiative, then the momentum in Europe for an Alliance-wide ballistic-missile defense will be lost (it will take years to rebuild the consensus achieved last year in Bucharest); European-based deterrent and defensive capabilities against ballistic missiles will not exist; Allies will be bewildered about the consistency of U.S. threat analysis and national security priorities; and both Iran and Russia will pocket the change in U.S. position as a tactical, if not, strategic victory.

Moreover, non-European allies, such as those in the Gulf and Asia, will question U.S. willingness to defend them from Iran and North Korea’s respective nuclear and ballistic-missile weapons. It would be a blow to America’s extended deterrence efforts and increase the incentives for proliferation by Iran and North Korea’s neighbors.

Daniel P. Fata is vice president at the Cohen Group in Washington, D.C. He served as the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy from September 2005 to September 2008.

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