Barack Obama's Decision on Missile Defense

Posted in Other | 29-Sep-09 | Author: Dieter Farwick

It was only one sentence: "The Obama administration cancels the plan to station land-based anti-ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe." It was like throwing a stone into the water. The shock waves went in all directions around the world - and some will rebound.

Ronald D. Asmus, Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund
Ronald D. Asmus, Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund
It confirmed that all major political issues are interwoven worldwide and are interlinked - be it the global financial crisis, the commitment in Afghanistan or regarding anti-ballistic missile defense.

To make things even more complex and complicated, domestic and foreign issues are inseparably linked, too. Not a single major political issue can be isolated and cut out of the worldwide net. Therefore, all major issues have to be dealt with simultaneously - executing the often mentioned "smart power."

One element of smart power is the clever timing of decisions and their announcements. Barack Obama's decision and his timing in its announcement certainly do not serve as examples of "best practice." Even leaders of countries involved seemed to be taken by surprise.

The first signals were seen when the Obama administration conducted a review of the plan of the former Bush administration to station ten launcher systems in Poland and radar systems in the Czech Republic. It was no easy mission for the leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic to get public support at home after strong resistance. They asked for US compensations in favor of their defense needs against the perceived enemy Russia and obviously got a US confirmation.

Now, some people in Eastern Europe question the reliability of the US with regard to their concerns with Russia. Thus, the decision to cancel the plan and the announcement of it might have a long lasting negative impact regarding concerns about US priorities.

But Eastern Europe is not the only region to look at: China, India, Iran, Japan and South Korea - to name a few - will carefully assess the implications.

If Obama's decision is evaluated as a sign of weakness, then the mid- and long-term perspectives for the world order are tremendous.

On the other hand, this decision could be taken as a signal that Barack Obama's administration accepts the new role of the US in a "non-polar" world avoiding "overstretch" - as demonstrated again by President Barack Obama in his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2009.

WSN Global Editor BrigGen(ret) Dieter Farwick took the opportunity to ask six questions to eight renowned experts on global security issues from both sides of the Atlantic: Ron Asmus, Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund; Klaus Becher, Managing Partner, Knowledge & Analysis LLP, London; Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel; Ambassador Bob Hunter; Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp; Jackson Janes, Executive Director AICGS; Gen(ret) Klaus Naumann, Former Chairman NATO Military Committee; and Gen(ret) Rainer Schuwirth, Former Chief of Staff SHAPE.

Dieter Farwick: What is the rationale of US President Barack Obama to cancel the deployment of land-based missile defense systems against strategic ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe in favor of sea-based missile defense systems against short - and medium-range "tactical" missiles?

Klaus Becher, Managing Partner, Knowledge & Analysis LLP, London
Klaus Becher, Managing Partner, Knowledge & Analysis LLP, London
Bob Hunter:

  • The situation is as stated: New intelligence on Iran and the questions regarding the US land-based Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities.
  • USA seeks support from Russia on Iran and smooth relations in general with Russia.
  • USA reassures Israel just as talks with Iran are to start and as US is trying to get Israel to take steps (especially on settlements) in order to help restart the peace process.
  • USA shows Iran that its ballistic missile program (conventional, potentially against Israel) has a counter.
  • USA tie-in with NATO Secretary General Rasmussen's proposal on NATO-Russia and Ballistic Missile Defense.

J.D. Bindenagel: It was long clear that missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic was not an effective defense against Iran and the alternative missile defense proposed is much more likely to be effective. That said, deploying those systems in new NATO member states without full consultation and at least hearing the Russian concerns would inevitably lead to Putin's Munich Security Conference speech and the retort that the missiles were a defense against Russia. Once down that path, the political as well as the security value of the proposed systems were damaged beyond political repair. If it was not a boneheaded idea in the first place, deployments against Iran in Poland and the Czech Republic became one.

General (retd) Klaus Naumann: As I am not privy to the deliberations of the Obama administration I can only speculate what the rationale might be. It seems to me that many aspects played a role. First, there might indeed be a different assessment of the progress Iran is making in its missile programs. If Iran's capabilities were limited to missiles of a range of up to 2000 km and if the assessment is that an increase to ranges of 5000 km or more is not too likely within the next five to ten years, then it would make a lot of sense to first deploy sea-based systems and at a later time the land version of the SM-Interceptor. In addition, another reason could be that the US defense budget will see cuts and that postponing the Eastern European deployment might help to mitigate the impact on those elements of the US Force Posture which are vital for the defense of the US.

Moreover, there are foreign policy reasons which might have played an important role, in particular the US-Russia relationship.

Klaus Becher: On substance, it is no surprise that the shortened version of the silo-based GBI interceptor is not anymore considered a technically up-to-date element of the future US and NATO missile defense architecture. The same decision could have been taken by a Republican administration, and Secretary Gates personifies this continuity. However, the palpable disregard for Central European allies shows Obama's different style. The cover story that Iran is now less likely than in the past to acquire missiles capable of reaching US territory looks like another case of politically skewed intelligence. The timing of the announcement can best be explained by a political desire to use nuclear arms control as the "success" that Obama so desperately needs. Russia is now expected to play along and present the expected bilateral routine agreement on extending the START verification regime beyond 2009 as a major breakthrough won by Obama's so-called "reset" of relations to Russia.

Ron Asmus: President Obama's decision to shelve the Bush's administration's missile defense plans has created a crisis of confidence in Washington's relations with Central and Eastern Europe. The defense architecture proposed by the administration may make more strategic sense in addressing the immediate Iranian threat. Nevertheless, it runs the risk of shattering the morale and standing of transatlantic leaders in the region who now feel politically undermined and exposed.

Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel
Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel
Karl-Heinz Kamp: One might speculate that it is the interest of the Obama administration to demonstrate that "pushing the reset button" in the relationship with Russia is underpinned by concrete action. However, the fact that the Eastern European allies (Poland, Czech Republic) were informed about the deal only on very short notice raises the suspicion that the decision on missile defense was not orchestrated quite well and was more like a quick shot.

Jackson Janes: The rationale was essentially that the system was not going to get the threat addressed. Getting a system closer to the Iranian theater was seen as a more effective deterrent policy.

Rainer Schuwirth: In any case, it has been a surprising decision, obviously without preparatory talks with the envisaged host nations or anyone else, e.g. NATO or even Russia after all that has happened with regard to this issue. After all previous efforts, expectations, reactions and discussions, this sort of action will once again raise concerns about US unilateralism. It is difficult to assess the rationale. The explanation of new intelligence on a lower threat level than proclaimed so far sounds rather questionable. This is even more the case since the events that have taken place in Iran during the last days (second reactor, missile launches), but also in light of the obvious intent to base defense now on mobile sea-based systems. So there is a threat. Obama may have followed his desire to get a deal with Russia on nuclear arms control and disarmament, and the obvious technical problems with the stationary system and the immense costs may have been another factor.

Dieter Farwick: What are the implications for US relations with Russia?

Bob Hunter: Better atmospherics; maybe appearance of more Russian cooperation on Iran (but doubtful the reality that the US seeks).

J.D. Bindenagel: Russia should drop its counterproposal to deploy missiles in Central Asia and the decision gives a basis for such a move. Also, the Russians could certainly focus together with NATO on the Iranian threat, which is real. NATO needs to talk to the Russians.

General (retd) Klaus Naumann: The Russians will pocket the US decision without giving anything in return. The statement that Russia will not deploy Iksander missiles to the Kaliningrad Oblast is meaningless propaganda since Russia does not dispose of sufficient numbers of these missiles. The Russians might feel tempted to conclude that their harsh reaction to the Bush plan was instrumental in achieving the shift in the US administration. The Obama administration will, as I hope, find ways and means to tell the Russians that they did not and will not kowtow to Russian pressure, and that President Obama is interested in a relationship in which Russia is an important, though not the most important partner of the US in its attempts to manage a rather unruly world. I hope that the Obama administration will take advantage of the momentum created by its decision to convince the Russians of being more forthcoming in the reduction of nuclear weapons, in the Iran issue where Russia did more in terms of protecting Iran than in living up to its duties as one of the P5 and in finding ways and means for cooperation with NATO.

Klaus Becher: An issue that had become a symbolic obstacle of disproportionate dimensions has been removed. Russia as well as all NATO countries should be happy about this opportunity to get back to a more cooperative agenda. However, some Russian political leaders may view unilateral US concessions simply as encouragement for more obstinacy. The test case will be Russia's active support for sanctions, including a credible threat of UN-led military sanctions, in response to Iran's breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ambassador Bob Hunter
Ambassador Bob Hunter
Ron Asmus: We assumed that Russia would finally accept that Central and Eastern Europe were gone from its sphere of influence and stop trying to interfere in their regional politics. But geopolitical competition did not stop. Moscow simply tried to pressure and interferes in new ways, using energy and other weapons. It seeks to marginalize these countries in NATO and the European Union by going above their heads. It still wants to create a zone of special Russian interest, influence and lesser security.

Karl-Heinz Kamp: Apparently, Washington is expecting a more supportive policy from Russia, particularly with regard to putting pressure on Iran. Russia's immediate reaction, however, does not leave room for too much optimism.

Jackson Janes: This remains to be seen. The Russians did cancel some missile deployments in the wake of Obama's decision but the ball is more in Moscow's court as to what they will now do with regard to Iran. Even though a deal was denied in the White House, I expect that Moscow's behavior will be scrutinized closely to see what signals it sends about Afghanistan as well.

Rainer Schuwirth: The decision has created a kind of triumph in Russia - as a consequence of Russian politics without compromises. As Obama has made no "deal" (if I cancel... you, Russia will/should), he has put himself in a position of weakness and it can be expected that Russia might try to exploit this situation also in other areas. In addition, Russia's recent declaration that it will not station missiles in the Kaliningrad area is what we call in German a "Lachnummer" (i.e. joke).

Dieter Farwick: What are the implications for the US bilateral talks with Iran and North Korea?

Bob Hunter: North Korea (DPRK): Little or none, since the earlier system was a long way off and the DPRK didn't take it seriously to begin with. Iran: Little, unless Russia agrees on a strong "stick" in regard to the talks with Iran (i.e., even if Russia will not agree to more sanctions, it might give the appearance of being more cooperative with the US on the Iran issue). Note: Doubtful that even more sanctions would have an impact on Iran. What would have an impact would be a serious offer of a trade between Iranian concessions on key issues and a US offer of security assurances.

J.D. Bindenagel: As for talks with Iran and North Korea, Iran's effort to divide the EU-US-Russia-China team suffers a significant blow. Iran will have to now come up with yet another way to avoid sanctions and cooperation with the IAEA. North Korea, which has now built weapons, is in a stronger position and the Chinese should finally take on more responsibility to deter them.

General (retd) Klaus Naumann: I do not see implications that matter since the US did not renounce short and medium range defensive options or any of the existing long range options.

Klaus Becher: Iran and North Korea perceive Obama's rule as weak and are unlikely to be impressed. The "death-of star-wars" spin that was given to Obama's decision in the media will be exploited by all interested parties to denounce missile defense as a whole as illegitimate and dangerous, including in East Asia and the Middle East.

Karl-Heinz Kamp
Karl-Heinz Kamp
Karl-Heinz Kamp: Particularly with respect to Iran there is the danger of a perception in Teheran that stubbornness and pressure pay off. Iran has not reacted positively on Obama's Cairo speech (the so called "Arab world" hasn't, either). The fact that Washington has (partly) justified its decision with a reassessment of the Iranian threat does not necessarily strengthen Washington's position in the region. While North Korea has remained silent so far, Teheran echoes more triumphalism than constructivism.

Jackson Janes: Again, the offer to talk to both is on the table but it will be critical for 0bama to be able to point at real measures of Iranian readiness to do more than talk. Same thing with North Korea. Without that, the president will come under increasing pressure by his critics to show progress.

Rainer Schuwirth: The same as I stated in my response to the second question.

Dieter Farwick: What are the implications for NATO regarding ballistic missile defense?

Bob Hunter: More emphasis on shorter-range threats, including against forces in the field. More work within NATO on a BMD package, possibly including Russia -- i.e., in relation to NATO Secretary General Rasmussen's speech. More support by West European states.

J.D. Bindenagel: NATO needs to continue to develop missile defense into a functioning system as long as there are missiles. Politicians on all sides need to ensure NATO has the political will to continue and the resources to make defense work. A strategy based on non-functioning weapons systems will not work.

General (retd) Klaus Naumann: I expect that the USG will launch a new initiative for a common funded and common operated theater ballistic missile defense system that could be linked to the existing US systems that protect the US homeland. Moreover, such a NATO system should be capable of defending NATO forces deployed beyond the NTA and it could be used for cooperation with Russia as suggested by Secretary General Rasmussen.

Klaus Becher: What Obama actually announced was not an end to missile defense but a continued, credible US commitment to building advanced missile defense capabilities together with the Alliance in an accelerated time frame. This is good news for NATO as a conduit for advanced transatlantic defense technology cooperation, complemented by the willingness of the Alliance to work with Russia as a cooperative neighbor.

Ron Asmus: We also need to fix NATO so it can again function as a crisis manager, as it did in the Balkans in the 1990s. Nothing prevents us from taking these steps. They do not contradict any of our commitments to Russia. They require only political imagination, will and a modest investment of resources. If we get that right, then the Obama administration's decision on missile defense can be a catalyst that helps us get this relationship back on track. If we don't, the crisis of confidence in the region will only deepen.

Jackson Janes, Executive Director AICGS
Jackson Janes, Executive Director AICGS
Karl-Heinz Kamp: Those in NATO who were concerned about the significant "price tags" in all the feasibility studies for a NATO missile defense (amending the US systems in Europe) might be relieved. Cohesion in NATO, however, might suffer. It is worth noting that the problem is much less the revision of the decision to deploy 10 launchers in Poland. The real problem is the way of justifying it by just declaring that all the statements on the ballistic missile threat by rogue states of the last decade have just been overstated. What if neither Russia is as conciliatory as expected nor Iran is terribly impressed by this kind of pressure - what did Washington win and what did it lose?

Jackson Janes: It could mean that a renewed discussion about a defense strategy within the framework of the new NATO security strategy being prepared could bear some fruit. Some partners in NATO were angered by the bilateral talks with Poland and the Czechs. If missile defense is now approached with a NATO branding, it could lead to a stronger European effort to contribute to such a defense shield. But that depends on political will in Europe.

Rainer Schuwirth: Difficult again - there may be a chance to work towards a really coherent capability.

Dieter Farwick: What are the implications for the relations between the US and Israel?

Bob Hunter: Some greater Israeli reassurance about Iran, but not fundamental. Wait to see how much the US presses Israel on the peace process (not possible to judge whether the US position will be "firmer" because of this step).

J.D. Bindenagel: Israel and the US are in agreement on the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and will continue to work together on missile defense. Stopping the Iranian weapons program and the development of an unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle in Iran is a common cause.

General (retd) Klaus Naumann: I do not see direct implications for US/Israeli relations. No one should doubt that the US will remain determined to protect Israel if it came under attack and no one should doubt the American resolve to find a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Klaus Becher: If Obama's decision turns out to facilitate Russian support for determined, coordinated measures against the Iranian threat of a nuclear weapons breakout, it may help to overcome the dead point in US-Israel relations that was caused by Obama's ill-judged attempt to impose a US-defined "peace agenda."

Karl-Heinz Kamp: Implications on Israel are difficult to assess as the relationship is currently strained anyway.

General (ret) Klaus Naumann, Former Chairman NATO Military Committee
General (ret) Klaus Naumann, Former Chairman NATO Military Committee
Jackson Janes: The Israelis should see in this decision a more targeted defense against the Iranian threat, and an opportunity to work together on it and thereby putting some distance from the idea of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran.

Rainer Schuwirth: I believe that it is important that Israel is sufficiently protected, regardless of the means by which this is achieved. In addition, there are dominant issues that will have an impact on these relations, in particular the US position toward whatever solution between Israel and Palestine.

Dieter Farwick: What are the implications for US foreign policy regarding domestic issues - e.g. healthcare?

Bob Hunter: None to speak of.

Issues left out: Impact in Central Europe regarding "reliability" of US in regard to their concerns with Russia; relative balance of US policy in terms of reassuring Central Europe versus promoting relations with Russia. Central Europeans will watch to see how this plays out in terms of what Russia will do next on issues like Georgia, Ukraine, Baltics, energy, cyber, and Putin's "ambitions" toward neighborhood. All Europeans will watch to see how much the US is paying attention to European concerns - on all issues, with Afghanistan in the background (this was becoming more worrying in any event). The question remains to be explored about how much consultation the US did with the allies on this matter and whether the US should have taken the decision or made it a NATO-wide decision. What will the US do now to reassure Poland, the Czech Republic and others? Note: A problem of the US' own making: the original BMD proposal was questionable, and the Poles and Czechs had to have their arms twisted. The deployments were not popular in those countries. The US consulted more with the Russians than with the Poles and Czechs before the decision on the original deployments. The "double whammy" is that with the US pressing for the original concept, eventually getting support, it now takes it away! The replacement is most likely better all around, including for the Central Europeans. But the "process" was not good and could have a continuing negative impact, against a background of concerns already about US priorities.

J.D. Bindenagel: Missile defense does not conflict with the priorities of the American administration. The financial crisis, global warming and healthcare all demand greater attention.

General (retd) Klaus Naumann: For a non-US citizen, it would be speculation to answer this question. The one aspect which could have an impact is that the decision will set free some money in the DoD's mid- term finance plan. But whether the president will use such money for something other than defense purposes remains to be seen.

Gen(ret) Rainer Schuwirth, Former Chief of Staff SHAPE
Gen(ret) Rainer Schuwirth, Former Chief of Staff SHAPE
Klaus Becher: Obama has so far not delivered on any of his lofty election pledges, in spite of the academic brilliance of the strategy papers his administration keeps producing. He needs a healthcare deal, but he is unlikely to get one that is more than a mixed blessing. Not being wedded to the homeland security theme, he is likely to turn to foreign affairs as the field where he can build his legacy. Here is an opportunity for other countries to make Washington feel welcome and mobilize US power for shared purposes.

Karl-Heinz Kamp: I do not see a link to domestic issues. Average people in the US, who will be well affected by the healthcare debate, might not be aware of the missile defense decision at all.

Jackson Janes: The president needs a domestic victory in healthcare in order to keep his support in the Congress from fraying. Once this is accomplished, he can turn his attention to getting some visible progress in Afghanistan for which he will also need to have his congressional support unified.

Rainer Schuwirth: This may become even more difficult - he has given up a baby - not yet born - which the Republicans have created. And undoubtedly the decision will be interpreted as weakness and not in support of US security interests.