Mikhail Metzel/AP
U.S. Senators Richard Lugar and Barack Obama, right, speak to reporters
during a 2005 visit to Moscow. (AP)

U.S. Missile Shield Dispute With Russia Presents Early Challenge For Obama

January 01, 2009 01:02 PM
by Josh Katz
One of Obama’s first major decisions will concern the future of the missile defense shield in Europe. Russia strongly opposes the shield; Obama has been noncommittal.

Government Officials Try to Influence Obama’s Missile Policy

The Dec. 15 meeting between U.S. officials and Russian representatives demonstrated Russia’s increasingly staunch opposition to the missile defense shield and sent a message about its future diplomacy with soon-to-be president Barack Obama on the issue. “In some ways, their position is less flexible than it was before,” said John Rood, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, according to Bloomberg. “It leads me to the conclusion that they would like to determine the posture of the new administration.”

Shortly after Barack Obama won the presidential election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Moscow would place short-range missiles near Poland’s border to “neutralize” America’s planned missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, Reuters reported. Many observers felt that Medvedev was trying to make a statement by announcing the move so close to the election, and attempting to influence the future president’s policy. However, it remains unclear how Obama will proceed with the missile shield and policy with Russia.

Obama’s aides have claimed that the president-elect is not committed to the shield, and he will follow through with the plans only if the shield is proven to work. In the Sept. 26 presidential debate, Obama said, “The biggest threat to the United States is a terrorist getting their hands on nuclear weapons,” and “we … are spending billions of dollars on missile defense. And I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.”

Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn is a senior defense advisor to Obama, and, as a Los Angeles Times editorial noted, the president-elect could take his views into consideration on the matter of missile defense. Nunn has chastised the Bush administration for widening the diplomatic rift between the United States and Russia by supporting Poland and Ukraine’s entry into NATO. Similarly, Nunn might try to lead Obama away from European missile defense.

In November, the outgoing head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency exhorted Obama to carry on the missile shield plans. Lt. Gen. Henry Obering of the Air Force said that abandoning the project in Poland and the Czech Republic “would severely hurt” America’s ability to defend against an Iranian attack. He also argued that it would damage U.S. influence in NATO, which worries about “an emerging threat from Iran that must be addressed.” He said that the 36 successful test missile intercepts in 45 attempts since 2001 prove the shield’s workability.

Background: Missile shield controversy escalates

In early December, Russia declared that it will produce a stockpile of new intercontinental ballistic missiles, in an apparent attempt to counter the planned U.S. missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russia has called the current policy of the United States “arrogant” and unilateral, highlighting a further escalation of regional tensions centered on recent efforts to include former Soviet states and Russian neighbors in Western-sponsored policy efforts, specifically NATO.
Although NATO and Pentagon supporters of the U.S. missile defense system have said it is intended for use against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, Russia has repeatedly expressed displeasure for the system’s close proximity to its borders.

A year of sharp exchanges about global expansion and Russia’s increasingly close military and economic relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez culminated in an exchange of direct criticism and threats following the incursion of Russian troops into a breakaway region of neighboring Georgia.

Following the standoff over Georgia’s South Ossetia region, Russia sent warships to Venezuelan borders, further inflaming the tension between Russia’s government and the West.

Opinion & Analysis: How Obama should proceed with the missile shield

The Los Angeles Times argued in a November editorial that the missile shield is not only unnecessary, but possibly not feasible: “Congress has yet to fund it, with cost estimates ranging from $4 billion to $10 billion a year for five years, and Obama may not have the money in the midst of an economic crisis.” The paper goes on to say that, “because Russia doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran any more than the United States and Europe do, there’s a good chance the Kremlin can be brought on board—perhaps even in exchange for scrapping the missile shield program.”

In an op-ed, Thomas P.M. Barnett, a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center, urged Obama to abandon plans for the European missile shield. The real threat, according to Barnett, is “a nuclear device smuggled into the United States and detonated by terrorists.” He claims that the United States is needlessly provoking Russia in order to defend Europe against a threat that isn’t there, because the last thing Iran wants is to attack Europe, assuring its own destruction. “With two wars and a global financial crisis in full swing, this is the ‘crisis’ on which American strategists want our future president spending precious diplomatic capital?” he said.

An editorial in the Baltimore Examiner argued that President Obama must put his full support behind the missile defense plan. Not only is Iran nearing nuclear weapon capabilities, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could someday come to an agreement that places nuclear weapons in America’s backyard, the editorial noted. “This is ‘no time to go all wobbly’, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to say,” according to the Examiner.

In a Fox News interview, former UN ambassador and current Fox News contributor John Bolton expressed a similar sentiment. Referring to an unclear Obama policy on the missile shield, Bolton said, “if I were sitting in Moscow, I’d say this shows weakness on the part of the incoming administration.” He claimed that the Russians are “going to wait for the Obama presidency and they’re going to hope they can overwhelm him, intimidate him, threaten him or find other ways to get him to back away from our missile defense program.”

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