Arthur Cyr: President Barack Obama deserves commendation for making the right call concerning deployment of anti-missile weapons in Europe. Instant criticism of the decision as weakness and appeasement of Iran and Russia is predictable but without merit.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and administration associates deserve commendation for making the right call concerning deployment of anti-missile weapons in Europe. The Bush administration plan to place radar and missile installations in the Czech Republic and Poland has been canceled. Instead, the U.S. will rely on a mobile sea-based system, with land-based mobile radars.
Instant criticism of the decision as weakness and appeasement of Iran and Russia is predictable but without merit. Mobile anti-missile systems are credible. North Korea, unlike Iran, has actually carried out primitive nuclear explosions. Last July, as Pyongyang rattled rockets yet again, Gates ordered deployment of a Lockheed Martin Terminal High Altitude Air Defense anti-missile system to protect Hawaii, a publicized possible target.
We have a vital interest in cooperation with Russia, where anxiety concerning potential military threats from Europe is strongly rooted in history. Extremist groups have had success in proselytizing among the very large Islamic populations of the former Soviet Union. Moscow also controls extensive petroleum and other mineral resources. Finally, Obama's visit this past summer resulted in useful agreement to permit Allied supplies to Afghanistan to transit Russia.
To protest the Bush administration's Czech-Poland missile plans, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a forward area close to Western Europe. Russian leader Vladimir Putin compared the Bush initiative to Nikita Khrushchev's attempt to put strategic missiles in Cuba, which led to the momentous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Obama's decision to go ahead with an anti-missile deployment also reflects powerful long-term lobbying for this type of weapon. President Dwight Eisenhower, in his 1961 White House farewell address, made pointed reference to a very powerful "military-industrial complex." Ike was hardly anti-military, but was extremely insightful regarding the dangers of the enormous defense establishment.
During that decade, defense spending absorbed more than half the entire federal budget, and a much larger percentage of gross national product than today. Eisenhower controlled the military in part by putting an overall ceiling on Pentagon spending, effectively setting the Air Force, Army and Navy against one another. Each service developed a separate strategic missile program, jealously guarding research and development information from the others.
In the new Kennedy administration, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was instantly offended by this duplication of effort and decisively imposed organization-chart order. The Air Force was given land-based strategic missiles, the Navy sea-based submarine systems, and the Army was removed from the game. The secretary also rejected the anti-ballistic missile (ABM), arguing a strong offensive capability was more believable.
McNamara quickly unified the military against him. The Army pressed successfully for an ABM role. When President Lyndon Johnson forced his secretary to resign, he made him president of the World Bank but also forced a public declaration of support for the ABM system.
President Ronald Reagan gave priority to exotic space-based missile interceptors, termed the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Air Force became the leading service but the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed the effort.
The Czech-Poland deployment was defended as prudent given threats from Iran. Nuclear strategist Herman Kahn used exactly that rogue regime argument in trying to assist McNamara when the earlier ABM system was announced. This very complex type of weapon is much more reliable today.
Obama's shift to a sea-based approach will maintain vigilance against rogues, while removing a thorny political problem in our very important relations with Moscow.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at email@example.com.