Stephen M. Walt
One and a half moments of sanity
Just when you think the wingnuts are taking over the asylum, something happens to restore one’s faith in rational analysis. Here are one and a half items that offered me some solace. The half-full glass is the Obama administration’s decision to replace the planned deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe with “a reconfigured system ...
Just when you think the wingnuts are taking over the asylum, something happens to restore one’s faith in rational analysis. Here are one and a half items that offered me some solace.
The half-full glass is the Obama administration’s decision to replace the planned deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe with “a reconfigured system aimed more at intercepting short- and medium-range Iranian missiles.” The original scheme was always a pretty silly idea, insofar as it was allegedly supposed to protect Europe from a presently non-existent “Iranian threat.” If Iran ever did get nuclear weapons and missiles with sufficient range, why would they aim them at Poland or Czechoslovakia or other European targets? Plus, if those dastardly Iranians could develop a missile and warhead to do that, they could undoubtedly find some way to sneak a nuclear device (i.e., one small enough to fit on a missile) into Europe via clandestine means, thereby negating any benefit we might derive from being able to knock down a few incoming ballistic missiles. Spending billions on that task always struck me as like spending thousands on a sophisticated burglar alarm while leaving your doors and windows unlocked.
We had this program because missile defenses have been a sacred cause for the GOP ever since Reagan launched the old “Strategic Defense Initiative.” Because building effective missile defenses is hard, expensive, and potentially open-ended, it is an appealing full-employment policy for government weapons labs and certain sectors in the U.S. defense industry. These corporations are happy to take some of their profits and give it to think tanks and lobbyists who will push the idea to the public and to Congress. There are also some diehards who saw deployments in Eastern Europe as a way to stick a thumb in Moscow’s eye, ignoring the fact that Putin & Co. could and would cause trouble for us if we did. And of course our Eastern Europe allies liked it, less because they were worried about Iran than because they saw it as a way to strengthen overall ties with Washington.
To be sure, Obama has bowed to these political realities and sought to preempt criticism, reiterating that there’s still an Iranian threat and that he’s merely decided to replace the original system with one based on different architecture. Secretary of Defense Gates and the JCS have backed him up, the former remarking that “those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing.” So this glass is only half-full. But I’m going to hope that this decision is the first step towards abandoning the whole idea, so that we can spend those billions on weapons we might actually need.
Which brings me to Item No. 2: Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak’s declaration that Iran is not in fact an “existential threat” to Israel. He’s right, and he deserves praise for saying so forthrightly. Iran remains an obvious national security problem for Israel for a number of reasons, but the frankly hysterical talk about “existential threats” was becoming counterproductive, unless your aim is to persuade people that war is necessary and that it will make everything better. Exaggerating the potential impact of an Iranian bomb may have been more dangerous than the capability itself would be, especially if it began to convince worried Israelis it was time to emigrate or led Iran’s leaders to mistakenly think that getting a weapon would suddenly give them a lot of additional influence or leverage. So kudos to Barak for reminding us that Israel is strong and offering a saner perspective.
These two moments of sanity reinforce each other, of course. If a future Iranian nuclear weapon isn’t an existential threat to Israel then it isn’t a politically meaningful threat to anyone, save countries that might be tempted to conquer Iran at some point in the future. So if Barak is right (and I obviously think he is), then the case for missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe is weaker than Obama is admitting.
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Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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