President Obama's decision to pull the plug on missile defense continues to attract a fair amount of criticism from the foreign-policy establishment. Some have interpreted the president's move as a unilateral concession to Russia-one for which we ought to get something in return. But the way in which the whole affair was handled is unlikely to get us anything we want.
One of the problems, from the start, when the system was first proposed during the Bush administration, was that politicians in Poland and the Czech Republic, along with some in the United States, described the proposal not only as a defense against a potential Iranian threat but also a hedge against a resurgence Russia-an additional American guarantee to eastern Europe. It is clear that part of the political price the Obama administration will have to pay for cancellation is to reassure America's erstwhile ballistic missile defense partners that they have not been abandoned. In Poland's case, this may well require not simply the payment of aid, but the deployment of other advanced U.S. military capabilities and equipment-including Patriot missiles. So Moscow still ends up with the possibility of an American base in Poland, which was one of the original objections to the ballistic-missile-defense (BMD) plan in the first place.
Another problem is that Washington has been so busy refusing that it's given in on anything. The Russians have held up until this very moment that America was atoning for and fixing a past sin. But the official U.S. line, as Tom Nichols noted over at National Review Online, is that the missile-defense system that was envisioned was for the wrong threat-we don't need to cope with a long-range missile threat, but one from short- and medium-range delivery vehicles. Technically accurate, yes, but not convincing politically. So if the reasons for the abandonment of this Bush initiative have nothing to do with Russian opposition, then how to turn this into leverage to get Moscow to act?
What we've gotten so far from the Kremlin is not substantive help over Iran in return, but a Russian commitment that Iskander short-range missiles will now not be deployed in Kaliningrad as a response. So Moscow can argue two things: 1) the Iranian threat isn't that bad after all, if the United States is canceling a program that before was seen as so urgent for the defense of Europe and the West, and 2) Russia has already responded, trading one missile deployment for another.
And if Russia does not intensify pressure on Iran, then what? The Obama team re-activates the BMD program in eastern Europe-after admitting that it doesn't think that the technology in hand can meet the threat?
This could have all been avoided-and handled much better-if there were clear organizing principles in terms of how to prioritize the threat posed by Iran, and consistent, reliable threat assessments that would enable Washington to firmly and decisively put the matter to its friends and partners. But there are not. Thus, when the president says at the United Nations that there should be "new coalitions that bridge old divides" in tackling issues like the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states like Iran, there is no mechanism in place to build them. Neither is there a better understanding of what trade-offs Washington would be prepared to make with Russia to ensure full Russian participation in and compliance with the needs of such a coalition. The BMD system was cancelled on the lack of its own merits-and Moscow knows this. To try and then get concessions from Russia on Iran in the absence of both a clear negotiating framework and without a sense of the costs and benefits involved seems another example of "U.S. officials hoping for the best."
So I'm not sanguine about the cancellation of missile defense leading to a rapprochement with Russia over Iran-and we shouldn't expect much of a change in the status quo.
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.