Is Obama’s missile defense bargain Yalta all over again?

Is Obama’s missile defense bargain Yalta all over again?

By Steve Biegun

Yesterday, a Russian newspaper leaked the contents of a February letter sent from President Obama to President Medvedev of Russia in which a trade was offered: The United States would abandon its deployment of a NATO missile defense site and radar placement in Poland and the Czech Republic respectively if Iran’s nuclear weapons program were ended. Since the entire purpose of the NATO missile defense system in Central Europe, as conceived by the Bush administration and approved by the full NATO Alliance, is to counter a rapidly advancing Iranian nuclear and missile threat, this grand bargain looks on its face to be eminently reasonable. We will see. But depending on the fine print of this agreement, it could also turn out to be a second coming of Yalta — a sell-out of America’s eastern European allies of epic proportions.

In today’s Washington Post and New York Times stories, there are differences in how the "bargain" is described by the State Department, the Defense Department, and the White House letter. State appears to suggest that the missile defense deployment will be abandoned if the Russian government cooperates on ending the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns is quoted as saying, "If, through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners, we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way at which we look at missile defense." Secretary of Defense Gates is quoted as suggesting that deployment of the missile defense system should be halted "if there is no Iranian missile program." And in yet a third construct, the Times today describes the Obama letter as saying, "the United States would not need to proceed with the interceptor system, which has been vehemently opposed by Russia since it was proposed by the Bush administration, if Iran halted any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles" (all emphasis mine). These are important differences. Let’s hope the New York Times has it right (for once).

In understanding the U.S.-Russian "bargain," the actual text of the Obama letter and the intentions of the Obama administration are ultimately more important than the descriptions in today’s papers. But as the words and intentions become clearer, one should consider the following choices that are likely still being debated inside the U.S. government, and will ultimately prove the worth of this initiative:

1. Halt deployment of the NATO missile defense if the Russian government is more cooperative in international diplomatic efforts to suspend Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons (e.g. Russian support for additional sanctions, slowing cooperation on Russian-Iranian civilian nuclear energy projects, etc);

2. Halt deployment of the NATO missile defense if the Russian government is more cooperative in international diplomatic efforts with the result being to end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons;

3. Halt deployment of the NATO missile defense if the Russian government fully joins a successful effort to verifiably end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile programs; or

4. Suspend deployment of the NATO missile defense if the Russian government fully joins a successful effort to verifiably end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Choice 4 is the only outcome that should be accepted by the United States and its allies in NATO. 

From a scan of today’s newspapers, one gets the sense that this issue may not yet be fully decided within the Obama administration. The coming debate is hugely consequential. It will determine whether the Russian government must simply cooperate in diplomatic efforts to put off the deployment of the NATO missile defense, or if that cooperation must produce an end to Iran’s efforts. Likewise, decisions must be made whether to accept a suspension or to demand a verifiable end of the Iranian nuclear and missile programs — and, for that matter, whether the focus of the policy is even to achieve an end to Iranian nuclear programs or missile programs or both. These decisions will shape how the United States defends the North Atlantic area (the territory of NATO), how U.S. relations with Poland and the Czech Republic develop (already under some strain according to reporting yesterday), and how the United States responds to Russian irredentism in central and eastern Europe.

If the United States trades off the defense of its own interests in Europe and the security of its NATO allies for anything less than an end to the Iranian nuclear and missile programs, the harmful consequences would go well beyond the direct threat those Iranian programs pose. First, the United States will strengthen Russian resolve to pursue irredentist claims in Central and Eastern Europe. The Russian government’s opposition to the NATO missile defense has never really been about Russia’s security.  The small number of interceptors NATO intends to deploy makes it completely useless in defending against a Russian nuclear strike. In fact, the Russian government is simply enraged that its former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe have the temerity to cooperate with NATO in the deployment of defensive capabilities of any kind on their sovereign territory — a decision that is not Russia’s to make.

Second, the United States and its NATO allies have a mutual interest and responsibility to maintain the defensive capabilities of the North Atlantic area. This is at the core of the NATO Treaty. If the Iranian nuclear and missile threat is allowed to develop unchecked, and if the United States, through its geographic location and its own missile defense capabilities, remains largely impervious to the threat, NATO will see a perceptible decoupling of transatlantic security interests that all NATO members have understood as a weakening of the alliance’s ability and resolve to provide for a common defense.  As for the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic, which have taken great political risks at home to support the NATO missile defense deployment, if the United States pulls the plug on missile defense simply to produce more cooperative Russian behavior, but with no requirements for what must be achieved, it will send a signal loud and clear that central and eastern Europe are trade bait — a sort of Yalta II, if you will. 

The NATO missile defense was not conceived as a reaction to uncooperative Russian diplomacy. It is intended to respond to a growing alarm among NATO members regarding Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. If Iran’s weapons programs are halted, it is a fully supportable policy by the Obama administration to suspend the missile defense deployments. To settle for anything less is folly.