House of Representatives lawmakers are set to debate an annual bill that authorizes military programs later this week, and a handful of Democrats have set their sights on killing provisions that would support efforts to build missile defenses by 2015 to protect America’s East Coast from future missile threats from countries like Iran.
It’s no accident that the House Armed Service Committee wants to robustly defend the East Coast from missiles by 2015. For over a decade, the intelligence community has consistently estimated that Iran, with foreign assistance, could develop by that year an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking the United States.
What’s worse, the office of the director of national intelligence reported to Congress last year that “entities” in China, Russia, and North Korea are “almost certainly” supplying Iran with “some key missile components.” On top of that, if Iran hasn’t already made the decision to build nuclear weapons, it is nonetheless clearly developing the capability to build them on alarmingly short notice.
So, if countries like Iran could pose in the near future a nuclear and ICBM missile threat to the East Coast, then why do some Democratic lawmakers want to kill efforts to build missile defenses on the East Coast? One basic answer is that far too many Democrats subscribe to a perverse strain of arms control ideology that, as a bedrock principle, opposes missile defense.
That strain of thinking has its origins in the Cold War, when many arms controllers argued that any attempts at missile defense were destabilizing, and that America’s safety should rest solely on mutual assured destruction (MAD)—namely, nuclear threats against an enemy country’s innocent civilians. Historian John Newhouse, who aligned himself with such thinking, nonetheless wrote that a “favorite apothegm” of such MAD-men arms controllers was: “Offense is defense, defense is offense. Killing people is good, killing weapons is bad.”
Even before President Obama was for very limited forms of missile defense, he was against missile defense on principle. For example, he said on a Chicago television show in 2001, “I, for example, don’t agree with a missile defense system.”
As president, Obama has cut funding for missile defenses to protect the United States every year, from $1.5 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2009 down to $900 million. What’s more, he decided in 2009 not to deploy in Europe 10 interceptors that could’ve protected the East Coast, and cut 14 interceptors from missile defense sites on the West Coast.
And who can forget how a hot microphone in March 2012 caught the commander in chief telling outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense [deployments in Europe], this can be solved, but it’s important for him”—by which he meant incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin—“to give me space.”
Some Democratic lawmakers who oppose the East Coast missile defenses like to quote a recent statement by General Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, who told Senate lawmakers: “Today’s threats do not require an East Coast missile field and we do not have plans to do so.” Jacoby’s comments are factually accurate: The current missile threat from Iran does not require missile defenses on the East Coast, and the Obama administration doesn’t want to build such defenses there. But what the House Armed Services Committee is worrying about isn’t “today’s threat”—it’s Iran’s potential ICBM missile threat to the homeland in the near future.
Unless House lawmakers want to align themselves with President Obama’s March 2012 claims—that “there is still time and space to pursue a diplomatic solution”—to stop Iran’s march to nuclear weapons making capability, they should start figuring out what else Washington can do, sooner rather than later, to protect American citizens from the prospect that Iran might soon get nuclear weapons and ICBM missiles capable of striking the continental United States. Defending the National Defense Authorization Act’s efforts to build East Coast missile defenses against MAD-men poison-pill amendments wouldn’t be a bad place to start.