Erring on the side of incaution

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President Obama’s decision not to deploy anti-ballistic missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic is unambiguously wrong. It reflects an unrequited concession to Russian belligerence, an embarrassing abandonment of two of America’s strongest European allies, and an appalling lack of understanding of the present and future risks posed by Iran. Worse, this unforced retreat of American hard power clearly signals what may well be a long American recessional globally.

First, Mr. Obama’s capitulation was about Russia, not about Iran. Russia has always known that former President George W. Bush’s national missile defense project was not aimed against Russia’s offensive nuclear capabilities, neither in scope nor in geographical deployment. To the contrary, our common interests in defending against threats from rogue states should have led to missile-defense cooperation, not antagonism.

What has really agitated Russia was not that the sites were for missile defense, but that they were an American presence in former Warsaw Pact countries, Russia’s now-defunct sphere of influence.

Now, without anything resembling a quid pro quo from Moscow, Washington has dramatically reduced its presence and isolated its own friends. In Russia and Eastern Europe, the basic political conclusion is straightforward and worrying: Russia, a declining, depopulating power, growled, and the United States blinked. This devastating reaction extends worldwide, especially among our Pacific allies, who fear similar unilateral U.S. concessions in their region.

Second, Mr. Obama’s proposed new missile defense deployments will not protect the United States against Iranian ICBMs, for which the Eastern European sites were primarily intended. Protecting Europe was only an ancillary, although welcome side effect, one intended to help calm European concern that the United States would abandon Europe and embrace isolationism behind national missile defenses.

Western Europe, not surprisingly, seems largely content with the Obama-projected alternative, which, if implemented, would protect Europe, but would have few tangible benefits for America.

Thus, despite Mr. Obama’s rhetoric about replacing one missile defense design with a more effective one, the systems in question are aimed at two completely different objectives. Of course, it also remains to be seen whether and exactly how the administration will actually implement its projected deployment, and what new risks are entailed.

For example, U.S. ships deployed in the Black Sea would be fully exposed to Russia’s naval capabilities, in contrast to more secure bases in continental Europe. Failure to implement the new plan aggressively will be seen as yet another failure of American will.

Mr. Obama’s public explanation omitted any acknowledgement that the Eastern European deployments were never intended to counter existing Iranian threats, but rather were to protect against threats maturing in the future. Obviously, to be ahead of the curve and ready before Iran’s threat became real, we had to begin deployment now, not in the distant future. Instead, Mr. Obama’s decision effectively forecloses our ability to be ready when the real need arises.

Third, although purportedly based on new intelligence assessments about Iran’s capabilities, Mr. Obama’s announcement simply reflected his own longstanding biases against national missile defense. He has never believed in it strategically, or that it could ever be made operationally successful.

The new intelligence “estimate” agreeably minimizes the threat posed by Iranian ICBMs, thus facilitating a decision to cancel that had been all but made during last year’s campaign. The assessment, as briefed to Congress immediately after the president’s announcement, involved no actual new intelligence, but only a revised prediction of Iran’s future capabilities.

The new “assessment” also confirmed the administration’s often-expressed and so far frustrated desire to negotiate with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. That schedule has slipped badly, leaving Mr. Obama running out of time for diplomatic endeavors.

Moreover, stronger economic sanctions, his fallback position, are increasingly unlikely to be comprehensive or strict enough to actually stop Iran’s nuclear program before completion.

How convenient, therefore, to suddenly “find” more time on the missile front, thus facilitating a diplomatic strategy that had been increasingly headed toward disastrous failure. Moreover, whatever the available intelligence, it does not determine what levels of international risk we should accept. Mr. Obama has too high a tolerance for such risk.

He is too willing to place America in jeopardy of Iran’s threat, a calculus exactly opposite from what we should use. It is far better to err on the side of U.S. security than on the side of greater risk of nuclear devastation. There is no harm in deploying our missile defenses before Iran’s ICBMs can reach America, but incalculable risk if Iran is ready before we are.

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