The United States is poised to dump a critical missile-defense agreement with two of its most dependable NATO allies. The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported yesterday that the Obama administration is going to scrap the "third site" anti-missile system scheduled to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic were scheduled to be deployed by 2013. Now the plan appears to have been shot down.
This move sends the wrong signal to our allies in Eastern Europe. The former Soviet satellites have been among the strongest proponents of a robust U.S. role in Europe because they believed they could count on the United States to defend their interests against perennially predatory Russia. Both countries showed good faith by sending troops to fight in Iraq as part of the multinational force. The Polish and Czech governments acted courageously when they agreed to host the missile-defense system.
Prague and Warsaw knew Moscow would react negatively, but after years of patient diplomacy, they chose to stand with the United States. Canceling the deployment will betray the trust of our allies in Warsaw and Prague, leave Europe defenseless against Iranian missiles, enhance the Kremlin's stature and diminish U.S. credibility. There is no upside.
The bad news is not confined to Europe. The timing of this decision is strategically maladroit. In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, the United States would extend a "security umbrella" for threatened countries in the region. But the system slated to be deployed in Eastern Europe was intended to counter future missile threats from the Middle East, principally from Tehran. Iran's neighbors may well wonder if Washington is serious about defending them from the emerging threat. Mrs. Clinton's promises are less credible if the United States is simultaneously opening and closing the defense umbrella.
While it is readying to abandon America's allies, the Obama administration is vigorously reaching out to Russia. It was reported in March that Washington had offered Moscow a grand bargain to trade the East European anti-missile sites for Russian promises to help discourage Iran's nuclear program. That's a bad deal that is fundamentally unenforceable. In July, at the Moscow Summit, President Obama reportedly reiterated his willingness to trade missile defenses for progress in bilateral arms reductions, which do not address the rising missile threat from countries such as Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The Obama administration also has floated the idea of a combined U.S.-Russian missile defense system and of a Joint Data Exchange Center for sharing information on missile launches. It is unclear what the United States expects in return for trading away the defensive system in Eastern Europe, but giving up something tangible for a promise of good behavior from Moscow is a fool's bargain.
The Obama administration has been generally hostile to missile defense. The budget for anti-missile systems as been cut, and programs such as the airborne laser and multiple-kill vehicle have been canceled or drastically scaled back. Gazeta Wyborcza reports that the administration is not completely abandoning the concept of a European defensive shield and may be looking at alternative sites in Turkey, Israel or the Balkans. But it makes no sense to repeat the difficult diplomatic process that resulted in the third-site agreements in pursuit of future deployments that would be no more effective but certainly would be more controversial.
Canceling the missile-defense deployments to Poland and the Czech Republic would be another step in America's gradual retreat from global strategic leadership. We are afraid to contemplate how long it will be before the Obama administration's national-security blunders have serious and irreversible consequences.