The power of a notion

Notions can be an indispensible force in the achievement of big leaps in business, science, sports, politics, personal fortune and military conquest. That’s how souls among us have taken apart genomes, drilled in ultra-deep water, run the 4-minute mile, put a black man in the White House, earned a billion dollars, and overthrown Mubarak. Sometimes ...

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Notions can be an indispensible force in the achievement of big leaps in business, science, sports, politics, personal fortune and military conquest. That's how souls among us have taken apart genomes, drilled in ultra-deep water, run the 4-minute mile, put a black man in the White House, earned a billion dollars, and overthrown Mubarak.

Sometimes notions and gigantic personalities combine, and the result can be a determination to go on, and on and on. Such is the case with missile defense. Three decades after Ronald Reagan visited Cheyenne Mountain and got the notion that the United States could shoot down a missile, the United States has spent more than $130 billion to prove the great man correct. In January, for example, the U.S. Missile Defense agency halted deliveries of the core weapon in the American-based system of ground-based interceptor missiles -- a Raytheon-made anti-missile device that failed yet again to hit a target. Yet, a week ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Moscow, attempting to fulfill one of President Obama's strategic priorities of the year -- getting a missile-defense deal with Russia -- and the Pentagon is asking for $10.6 billion on more development in its next budget.

One matter is the pure indomitability of Reagan's notion. The other is its indomitability in the context of events around the world -- 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the revolutionary fervor in the petro-states of the Middle East. Are we fighting the proverbial last war? "In 1999, 2000, 2001, the Russians were saying, ‘Look you knuckleheads, the real threat is Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.' Then 9/11 happened and they look pretty right," Andrew Kuchins, who runs the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told me over the phone.

Notions can be an indispensible force in the achievement of big leaps in business, science, sports, politics, personal fortune and military conquest. That’s how souls among us have taken apart genomes, drilled in ultra-deep water, run the 4-minute mile, put a black man in the White House, earned a billion dollars, and overthrown Mubarak.

Sometimes notions and gigantic personalities combine, and the result can be a determination to go on, and on and on. Such is the case with missile defense. Three decades after Ronald Reagan visited Cheyenne Mountain and got the notion that the United States could shoot down a missile, the United States has spent more than $130 billion to prove the great man correct. In January, for example, the U.S. Missile Defense agency halted deliveries of the core weapon in the American-based system of ground-based interceptor missiles — a Raytheon-made anti-missile device that failed yet again to hit a target. Yet, a week ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Moscow, attempting to fulfill one of President Obama’s strategic priorities of the year — getting a missile-defense deal with Russia — and the Pentagon is asking for $10.6 billion on more development in its next budget.

One matter is the pure indomitability of Reagan’s notion. The other is its indomitability in the context of events around the world — 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the revolutionary fervor in the petro-states of the Middle East. Are we fighting the proverbial last war? "In 1999, 2000, 2001, the Russians were saying, ‘Look you knuckleheads, the real threat is Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.’ Then 9/11 happened and they look pretty right," Andrew Kuchins, who runs the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told me over the phone.

The question is not whether the Pentagon ultimately will manage to figure out the missile conundrum — this notion could yet prove itself out. Clay Dillow at Popular Science, for example, reports that Northrop Grumman has achieved a breakthrough with the ability to track a ballistic missile through all phases of flight. Poniblogger at CSIS has some interesting thoughts about missile defense progress.

It is rather whether Western military and security minds ought to be focused on how to adapt to a tectonically different Middle East, including how to secure the world’s energy supply. It is whether it’s best to continue what’s now a 28-year-long effort to engage Russia on missile defense, or to shift the focus to a cooperative policy on energy, arguably a more enduringly strategic problem. It is also what to do about nuclear energy given Fukushima.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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