Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Should America Pay for Europe's Missile Defense?

President Obama made a gaffe Monday when asking Russian president Dmitri Medvedev to convey the message to Vladimir Putin that he needed a little "space" on the issue of missile defense in Europe. After the 2012 election, he indicated, he would have more "flexibility" on the issue. This is doubtless true. But the real problem isn't that Obama wants to negotiate later on about missile defense. It's that America is trying to build one at all. Why is a bankrupt America trying to spend additional billions of dollars to defend Europe?

This isn't a question that Obama's adversaries are entertaining. Instead, Republican foes immediately and predictably pounced upon Obama's remarks. As the Los Angeles TImes reports,

Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, accused Obama of "pulling his punches with the American people" and obscuring his plans for the missile defense system.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said "we look forward" to hearing what the president meant by "more flexibility" when he returns from South Korea.

John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, called Obama's comments a "fire bell in the night," which signaled not only that Obama would scale back the missile defense program, but also that he might be planning to give ground on a range of national security priorities.

"There's huge cause for concern here," Bolton said.

Actually, there isn't. The good news would be if Obama really was prevaricating—if he was secretly prepared to jettison an expensive and worthless missile-defense program that is redolent of the Cold War but has little to do with current threats. The administration claims that it is aimed at preparing to halt potential strikes from Iran against Europe. But isn't that Europe's problem? Anyway, Obama has said he won't permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon in the first place.

Let's face facts: any missile system is not aimed at Iran. The true target is Russia. Decades after the Cold War ended, our national-security establishment remains stuck on automatic pilot. Russia poses no military threat to Eastern Europe, most of which has been incorporated into NATO. Any missile-defense system is bound to antagonize Russia further, creating an enemy out of a potential partner. Its practical utility is also questionable. The record of missile-defense systems has been spotty. A more farsighted policy would be to continue to work as effectively as possible with Russia to decommission nuclear weapons, including the remaining American nuclear weapons stationed in Germany.

Any missile-defense system that America stations in Europe, by contrast, will not be construed by Russia as a defensive maneuver but, rather, as an offensive weapon. To help stymie criticism of Obama, White House aides, the LA Times says, are claiming that the president is "deeply invested" in the program. If so, he is getting terrible investment advice. The episode reeks of Obama's conventionality. Eager to appease his critics on the Right and afraid to take a bold stance, he will doubtless continue a half-hearted and expensive effort to construct some missile-defense system that will never be successfully constructed. A bolder president would abandon this bogus effort and explain why the Iran threat is overblown, a product of fearmongering from the very same people that brought us the Iraq War. Don't hold your breath.

Image: Mika Stetsovski