What's Happening with Missile Defense?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that the U.S. might delay the activation of the proposed missile defense system in Eastern Europe until a genuine threat emerges from Iran. Why the change in policy?

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said today that the United States might link the activation of any missile defense system based in Eastern Europe to "definitive proof" that there is in fact a genuine threat of ballistic missile attack from Iran-such as the successful test by Tehran of a rocket that could strike targets in Europe.

"We have not fully developed this proposal, but the idea was we would go forward with the negotiations, we would complete the negotiations, we would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran," he said at a press conference in Prague today.

Some have suggested that this proposal-which would not prevent Washington from negotiating over the agreements that would be needed to deploy components in the Czech Republic and Poland-is designed to mollify continued opposition to U.S. plans from Russia, by making it clear that the United States is interested in coping with a threat from Iran, not posing any sort of strategic challenge to Russia.

Raising the prospect of a delay may also give proponents of the system more time to rally support in the Czech Republic, where opinion polls are running strongly against any deployment. It also offers Washington the opportunity to reassess the talks with Poland, since the likely new prime minister Donald Tusk will want to revisit the issue-and may press Washington for greater concessions-including the politically sensitive issue of obtaining visa-free status for Poles wanting to visit the United States.

I also feel, however, that there is another dimension-the European one. Linking the deployment of a missile defense system to a clearer manifestation of an actual threat to European and transatlantic security makes it far easier for America's NATO allies to accept the system. Even pro-American Central European politicians like Zsolt Nemeth, the chairman of the Hungarian parliament's foreign affairs committee, make this point. Speaking to a roundtable audience at the Hudson Institute today, Nemeth said:

"As far as the missile defense program is concerned, my party's position is clear. The defensive mechanisms to be positioned by the U.S. in Europe will significantly increase the security not only of the recipient countries but that of the entire continent. However, in this regard we would like the United States to put the system into operation in agreement with the European NATO members. I am convinced that with negotiations it will be possible to make missile defense a product not only that of a few NATO members but one that enjoys the support of NATO as an organization."

This is what Gates appears to be trying to accomplish.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.