As the Obama administration finalizes its preparations for the Obama-Medvedev summit next week, their vaunted "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia is experiencing some technical difficulties.
With negotiators meeting to work on a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires at the end of this year, the administration is reportedly exploring all options to assuage Moscow's concerns about America's planned foray into its backyard in the form of planned U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Secretary Gates spoke recently of his hope that Russia might still cooperate with the United States, Poland, and the Czech Republic on a joint missile defense architecture in Europe, a concept which was immediately rejected by a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman.
On June 16, Gates' deputy, William J. Lynn, went further, suggesting that the Czech and Polish sites were just one of several alternatives being considered by the Obama administration. This announcement came as a surprise to a number of members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and to the Czechs and Poles, who have endured Russian threats as a result of signing agreements with the United States last year committing to host the U.S. missile defense sites.
On its face, an attempt to trade missile defense for a new START agreement might seem like a worthwhile bargain. Poland and the Czech Republic have not yet ratified the agreements required to construct the sites, Iran is not yet capable of launching a missile that can reach the United States, and the Obama administration argues the real threat is from short and medium range, not long-range missiles.
But this thinking is flawed for several reasons.
First, despite some public apprehension in Poland and the Czech Republic about the presence of U.S. forces on their territory--driven in part by the legacy of Soviet occupation--the European sites are an important symbol of America's commitment to the security of our NATO allies in central and Eastern Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, and their neighbors are looking for a stronger U.S. presence, not capitulation in the face of Russian threats, especially in the wake of Russia's August 2008 invasion of Georgia. Abandonment of the European sites would in effect be a U.S. acknowledgement of a Russian sphere of influence in the region and show the Russians that threats and bullying are the best way to influence the Obama administration.
Second, although Iran does not currently possess the capability to launch a missile that could hit the United States, it is steadily making advances in its missile program. In February, Iran successfully launched a satellite into orbit using the same technology that can be used in long-range missiles. In May, Iran successfully tested a solid-propellant missile that will eventually be able to strike U.S. bases in the Middle East as well as parts of Europe. The aftermath of Iran's presidential election makes more missile tests likely, as regime hardliners attempt to show the world that they remain in control.
Finally, the Obama administration's willingness to provide additional funding for systems that defend against short and medium range missiles should be applauded, yet it should not come at the expense of our ability to confront the long-term threat posed by Iran to the U.S. homeland. A recent report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated that "With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015."
These are the facts about the European sites, but the Obama administration appears to be caving in the face of Russian rhetoric. With the Obama administration desperate for an arms control deal, the Russians have made their intentions clear: no START agreement unless U.S. missile defenses are also limited.
The Russians are savvy negotiators. The same cannot be said of Team Obama.
President Obama has responded to Russian bluster about missile defense by announcing his intention to cut the missile defense budget by 15 percent in FY2010, slashing funding for construction of the European sites in Poland and the Czech Republic by 80 percent, and appointing a leading Congressional skeptic of the European sites, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who has accused her opponents of "running around with their hair on fire about a long range threat from Iran that does not exist," as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, the top State Department official tasked with advancing missile defense discussions with Russia and our European allies.
These actions, combined with the administration's seeming lack of interest in confronting Russia on human rights and other "uncomfortable" topics do not leave the Obama administration with a good negotiating hand.
If he abandons the European missile defense sites, President Obama will have succeeded in empowering the ayatollahs in Tehran and the autocrats in Moscow, and will concomitantly put our allies in central and Eastern Europe on notice that they are merely bargaining chips to be discarded when it is convenient.
That would be quite the "reset."
Jamie M. Fly served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the National Security Council Staff from 2005-2009. He is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.