commentary

(International Herald Tribune)

September 21, 2009

Real Threats, Real Fears, Real Defenses

by James Dobbins

Critics of the Bush administration missile defense plans for Central Europe have charged that the United States would be deploying defenses that did not work against a threat that did not exist.

It is certainly true that the planned American defenses were largely untested, and the anticipated Iranian threat unbuilt.

A more serious criticism of the Bush plan, however, was that it would defend countries not threatened by Iran, while leaving Iran's more likely victims entirely uncovered.

The idea that the Czechs or Poles, or anyone else in Europe, needed to be protected from Iranian missile strikes was always implausible in the extreme. Why would Iran want to nuke its best customers and principal suppliers? What conceivable scenario would lead to a conflict between Iran and the European Union?

Of course these countries also belong to NATO. But if the United States ever chooses to go to war with Iran, it will not be with NATO backing. Europe has no stomach for such a conflict — and no real motive either.

Those in the Czech Republic and Poland who supported the American plan (always a minority in the former) did so for exactly the same reason that the Russian government opposed it.

The Bush administration consistently denied that its proposed missile defense shield was directed against Russia, which was technically true. The planned defenses would have been quite ineffective against a Russian missile attack.

But East European support for the deployment and Russian opposition to it was always based upon the expectation that this would be but the first step toward a greater American military presence in the region, and the eventual deployment of more effective missile defenses.

The current protestations of shocked surprise at President Obama's decision to scrap the Bush plans by Czech and Polish politicians who supported the deployment must be regarded somewhat skeptically.

Their own media would have alerted them to the increasing probability, as their negotiations with the Bush administration neared conclusion in mid 2008, that the next American president was going to be a Democrat. Their Washington embassies would certainly have reported that the Democrats were critical of the Bush approach to European missile defense.

Signing on to the Bush plan in the midst of an American election campaign was thus always a calculated gamble, and a badly calculated one at that.

If the notional Iranian threat to Europe was always implausible, particularly to the Europeans, the Iranian threat to its more immediate neighbors is much more real, and certainly more keenly felt.

Israel and the oil rich mini-states that dot the Gulf are at the other end of the alarm spectrum, with Israel reportedly considering preemptive military strikes and the Gulf states quietly encouraging them in such a step.

President Obama has thus chosen to protect countries genuinely threatened with technology that reliably works against a threat that actually exists. His decision will reduce the American military footprint in Eastern Europe and make an eventual shield against Russian missile attack there less likely.

Those who oppose Obama's decision for those reasons should be candid about their objectives, rather than hinging their objections on a threat that the Iranians do not pose and the Europeans do not feel.


James Dobbins is a former assistant secretary of state for European affairs and directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on September 21, 2009.