President Obama's decision to cease the deployment of a long-range ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic has ruffled lots of feathers. There seem to be two major objections to Obama's move. First, that scrapping the program increases the threat posed by Iran's potential nuclear capability, and second, that scrapping the program is a slap in the face to the Eastern European countries that have proven themselves to be staunch allies. Those who support Obama's decision point to the fact that Obama plans to replace the scrapped system with one designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles rather than long-range ballistic missiles.
Obama's decision was, I believe, the correct one. But, I'd like to see him go all the way and scrap missile defense entirely. I've been on the record for years in my opposition to the cost of developing a functional missile defense program, and still believe that the money would be better off put towards other things, such buying more F-22s, hardening the US grid against EMP attacks, or developing better cyberspace defenses. I don't see that that calculus has changed. It's true that defending against short- and medium-range missiles aimed against US allies rather than against CONUS itself makes more sense; deterrence is likely to be more difficult to achieve when the stakes are asymmetric (it's one thing to threaten a nuclear response to a strike against an American; it's quite another to do so in response to an attack against an ally). But, given all the threats faced by the US and the limitations on resources, certainly exacerbated by the recession, I'm still doubtful that missile defense is worth the money.
But, while Obama's decision moved in the right direction, it was handled very poorly. First, it is not likely to go over well with the Czech Republic and Poland. Both countries have been solid US allies, expending their own political capital to support US decisions, are are justifiably worried now, especially given the US reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia, that the US may be more interested in easing tensions with Russia than protecting their far-away allies. For Eastern Europe, missile defense wasn't so much a protection against Iran as it was a sign of US commitment to their defense. Moving away from that doesn't help to convince these states that they will be able to count on the US when the chips are down (certainly, the weaknesses of NATO being exposed in Afghanistan are compounding those fears). Certainly, more should have been done to consult with Poland and the Czech Republic as well as to signal America's strong commitment to them.
Even worse, however, is that the US has made a huge concession to Russia without getting anything in return. Russia had long voiced loud opposition to the proposed eastern European deployment. But the program, as envisioned, offered no threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent. This was a system designed to intercept a small number of missiles, not the hundreds or thousands that would be launched in a Russian response (of course, if Russia was planning on launching a small-scale strike against Warsaw, the defense shield would have been problematic). So, Russian opposition to the missile defense program stems from Russian opposition to increasing US entrenchment in what Russia considers to be its backyard. By backing down here, Obama has likely signaled to Russia that the US is unsteady in its commitment to eastern Europe. Furthermore, that concession came with no reciprocal concession from Russia. At the very least, Obama should have extracted a promise from Russia to support increased international sanctions on Iran for continuing to defy international law with its nuclear program (a position I advocated almost two years back). Instead, the US gave Russia a major policy victory, and in return Prime Minister Putin announced just last week that Russia would not support increased sanctions on Iran, a stance further supported by Foreign Minister Lavrov, and that it is convinced that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. Russian President Medvedev did say earlier this week that while “sanctions are not very effective on the whole...sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right" which seemed to hint at a possibility Russia would, in fact, back stronger sanctions. But, that comment isn't a clear enough commitment to warrant giving up such a important bargaining chip as the European missile defense system.
It's possible that a deal has been worked out and that when the issue of Iran comes up in the Security Council Russia will indeed support the imposition of tougher sanctions. But I'm not holding my breath. By not extracting stronger public statements that would commit Russia to a course of action, the door has been left open for a Russian change of position. Obama made the right decision, but in all the wrong ways.