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Obama’s indecision on Star Wars

When it comes to whether President-elect Obama should follow through on plans to base a missile defense shield in Europe, everyone’s got an opinion. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says dropping the shield program would pave the way toward improving U.S.-Russia ties. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the shield isn’t worth all the trouble and should ...

When it comes to whether President-elect Obama should follow through on plans to base a missile defense shield in Europe, everyone's got an opinion. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says dropping the shield program would pave the way toward improving U.S.-Russia ties. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the shield isn't worth all the trouble and should be scrapped. The LA Times editorial board says Obama should make up his own mind, before basically telling him to ditch the shield.

In favor of the shield are U.S. defense hawks like John Bolton, some top military officers, NATO, and current (and possibly future) Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

What Obama thinks about all of this isn't entirely clear. After a conversation between the president-elect and Polish president Lech Kaczynski last week, Kaczynski seemed to get the impression that Obama and expressed support for the shield, which will be partially based on Poland. Obama's people say he never promised any such thing:

When it comes to whether President-elect Obama should follow through on plans to base a missile defense shield in Europe, everyone’s got an opinion. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says dropping the shield program would pave the way toward improving U.S.-Russia ties. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the shield isn’t worth all the trouble and should be scrapped. The LA Times editorial board says Obama should make up his own mind, before basically telling him to ditch the shield.

In favor of the shield are U.S. defense hawks like John Bolton, some top military officers, NATO, and current (and possibly future) Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

What Obama thinks about all of this isn’t entirely clear. After a conversation between the president-elect and Polish president Lech Kaczynski last week, Kaczynski seemed to get the impression that Obama and expressed support for the shield, which will be partially based on Poland. Obama’s people say he never promised any such thing:

"President Kaczynski raised missile defense, but President-elect Obama made no commitment on it. 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," McDonough said.

Bolton characterizes this statement as "weak and ambiguous." He’s right, but it’s probably the best the Obama team can do at the moment.

In an ideal world, I suspect Obama would scrap Star Wars. It’s an expensive and unnecessary program that stands in the way of Obama’s goal of engaging Russia on more pressing matters. But as Time‘s Mark Thompson points out, extravagantly expensive military programs take on a momentum of their own and are often harder to shut down than they are to start.

Then there’s the matter of agreements that the Obama’s predecessor signed with Poland and the Czech Republic. Mevedev’s recent bluster has also put Obama in a position where he would look awfully weak by acquiescing to Russia’s wishes.

The fact that the Obama team hasn’t come down strongly on either side of this debate yet seems to be driving partisans crazy, but there’s little reason for him to dive in headfirst before there’s even national security team in place. This issue is a lot more complex than either side usually admits and Obama is right to take his time.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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