Diplomacy from Defense

Robert Gates advocated tying America’s missile-defense plans with Iran’s nuclear progress over a year ago. With his letter to Russia, it looks like President Obama has finally taken Gates’advice.

Is President Barack Obama moving to adopt the views of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as his own-at least when it comes to Russia and missile defense?

During the campaign, candidate Obama's main quibble with the ballistic-missile-defense system-that George W. Bush had promised to deploy in Poland and the Czech Republic against a perceived threat from Iran-was not Russian objections but doubts as to whether the technology would actually work. Indeed, candidate Obama said that he did "support missile defense," but wanted to "ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective." (This was also largely the position of candidate Clinton during the 2008 primaries.)

This, too, was the message Obama sent in the weeks between the election and his inauguration, when the Polish government attempted to get a firm commitment from the incoming administration that Bush's plans would continue on track. At times the Obama team took pains to emphasize that they were not considering any sort of "swap" whereby the missile-defense system would be traded for Russian cooperation on other issues.

Instead, it was Secretary Gates who was one of the few publicly arguing the case for tying U.S. missile-defense plans with Iran's progress in acquiring nuclear and missile technology (and sometimes quite at odds with the public pronouncements from other departments of the Bush administration). In Prague in December 2007-and then again in spring 2008-Gates made a clear link between deploying any system in Eastern Europe with the existence of a real and credible threat emanating from Iran. "When we see flight testing that leads us to believe the Iranians are close to developing a capability to hit our allies in Europe, that would be the point at which we would operationalize the sites."

The logic was obvious: if the Iranian threat disappears, so does the rationale for the U.S. system.

It is clear from the letter President Obama sent this week to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that no overt trade was actually proposed. But for the first time, the president has moved along the path trailblazed by his defense secretary. If there is no Iranian threat, there is no need for missile defense in Europe. Therefore, if Russia does more to remove the sources of U.S. (and European) anxiety when it comes to Iran . . . and one can finish the logical sequence of the sentence. After all, candidate Obama noted that one of his reasons for skepticism about missile defense was that it would "divert resources from other national-security priorities." (And this was before the economic downturn!)

All of this provides interesting context for Secretary Clinton's talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later this week. And although no one likes using the phrase "quid pro quo," there does appear to be a bargaining list taking shape-first on Afghanistan, now on Iran and missile defense. Gates likes to talk of "balance" in America's foreign and defense policy. In this overture to Russia, it certainly looks like his ideas on how to conduct U.S.-Russia relations are being seriously considered by the president.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.