Thursday, November 13, 2008
ROBBINS: The presidential test has begun. James S. RobbinsOP-ED: During the presidential campaign Vice President-elect Joe Biden predicted, "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy." This wasn't just another gratuitous allusion to the impending Camelot 2.0, but an apt comparison. A new, young president is a standing temptation to foreign powers seeking to find his limits.The erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis came about in part because Nikita Khrushchev sized up Mr. Kennedy as "too intelligent and too weak." Now Russia seeks to supply a new missile crisis, over agreements reached earlier this year between the United States, Poland and the Czech Republic to base elements of a missile defense system in their countries by 2012.The morning after President-elect Obama's election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia would deploy Iskander short-range missiles in the small Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Polish northeast border along the Baltic. Who knew the crisis Mr. Biden predicted within six months would begin germinating within six hours? The missile defense program is one of the most important legacies of the Bush administration. In the past seven years, the United States has made remarkable progress in the research, development, testing and deployment of advanced missile defense systems. The effort was jump-started when Mr. Bush announced in December 2001 that the United States would exercise its option to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty.Since then the strategic rationale for missile defense has grown more compelling. Proliferator states like North Korea and Iran have continued to advance their missile and nuclear programs. And unlike the Cold War period, when critics doubted the efficacy of defensive system being able to take out thousands of Soviet warheads, contemporary scenarios foresee more limited missile strikes by less deterrable actors. So capabilities have increased, as have threats, and our ability to cope with them.But missile defense has had obdurate opponents. In 2001 Mr. Biden called Mr. Bush's missile defense plans a "theological mission" motivated by an "ideological commitment," resulting in "absolute lunacy." He retains that viewpoint today. But the missile defense argument is not ideological but grounded in strategic realism. If anything, it is the opponents of missile defense who have a "faith based" strategy - namely, hoping nothing happens. And if the vice president-elect wants to discuss theological missions, he really should pursue that topic with the regime in Tehran.The Obama administration will be less committed to missile defense than its predecessor, but will it back up our allies?Obama foreign policy advisor Dennis McDonough said the president-elect "made no commitment" on the shield during his conversation with the Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and that "his position is as it was throughout the campaign, that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable.""Proved to be workable" is a red flag. This has been the standby argument against missile defense since the 1960s. Critics of the system can avoid debating the compelling strategic rationale by citing alleged technological deficiencies. You can always find some scientist willing to testify that missile defense technology is imperfect - indeed what technology is perfect? But the argument is showing its age, especially given the proven workability of missile defense systems.Furthermore, Mr. Obama's unwillingness to reassure Mr. Kaczynski is troubling. The Russians are watching this development closely, hoping to see the U.S. back down, particularly after Moscow's assertive and successful gamble in Georgia. Mindful of this, our eastern European allies are moving cautiously. Fearing an emerging grit deficit in the United States, both Poland and the Czech Republic have delayed final ratification of the missile defense agreements until the next administration is in place, and until they have concrete assurances that the United States will back them up. For countries on the Russian periphery who suffered over 40 years of Soviet occupation, national security is too important to be anchored on American vagueness.The Obama team is going to great lengths to manage the transition to power, in the belief that they can control events and avoid the pitfalls of the less orderly transitions of their predecessors. But as the emerging Kaliningrad missile crisis shows, there are factors that are out of their control.Mr. Biden's prediction, that "we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy," was surely sound. And while he is planning his legislative agenda for the first 100 days, the president-elect should reserve some time to deal with the inevitable wildcards that will be pressed on him by ambitious world leaders who will be eager to demonstrate that they can create change, too. Dr. James S. Robbins is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.
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