Less than a week after the U.S. presidential election, the Iranians claimed to have tested a new, more accurate missile with sufficient range to reach Israel and southeastern Europe. So it looks like the Obama administration will get tested early on two issues: Iran and missile defense. With regard to the latter, according to Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser, Denis McDonough: “His position is as it was throughout the campaign: that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable.” As president, Obama will have to decide whether to proceed with the Bush administration’s plans to install missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic (so far, he is noncommittal about doing so) both of which the Bush administration argues are needed to defend European allies against an emerging missile threat from Iran. Making matters more complicated is that the missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic are strongly opposed by Russia, which views them as a threat close to their borders (Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has threatened to deploy missile systems near Poland’s border in retaliation).
So does the United States need to deploy missile defense? The short answer is “no.”
Currently, only two countries Russia and China possess long-range nuclear ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. However, Russia is not the same strategic hegemon and superpower that the former Soviet Union was during the Cold War, and China is not a direct military peer competitor to the United States. And to the extent that either or both might represent a nuclear threat, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a deterrent.
If there is a case to be made for missile defense, it is for the relatively unlikely possibility of unauthorized or accidental launch by either Russia or China. But this is less of a threat per se and more of a happenstance. And as such, it would only warrant a more limited missile-defense system to act as an insurance policy and mitigate the damage.
The real problem with missile defense (technical feasibility aside) is that although it is portrayed as needed to protect America, its purpose is much larger. The mission of the Missile Defense Agency is “to develop and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile-defense system to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.” (In contrast, the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 states that “it is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack” which at least comports with the government’s constitutional responsibility to “provide for the common defense.”) Even the director of the Missile Defense Agency, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, admits the proposed missile-defense deployments in Europe are not about protecting the United States: “If we were to walk away from these proposed deployments to Europe, that it would severely hurt our ability to protect our deployed forces in that region and our allies and friends from what we see as an emerging threat.”
The reality is that missile defense is not about protecting Americans who are defenseless against ballistic missile attacks, which is the emotional appeal for justifying the more than $120 billion spent on missile defense since President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative 25 years ago (and it’s important to remember that any missile defense, no matter how effective, will not protect Americans from terrorists using easier and cheaper means to inflict mass casualties witness 9/11). Rather, missile defense is about defending U.S. forces and allies in an ever expanding security perimeter around the world. In other words, it is yet another tool for building an empire based on American values.
It’s still not clear whether President-elect Obama will steer American foreign policy away from empire (other than in Iraq), but scaling back the current grandiose plans for missile defense would at least be a step in the right direction.