Obama dares to reverse Star Wars


The new plan that President Obama laid out for a missile shield against Iran turns Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Star Wars system on its head: Rather than focusing first on protecting the continental United States, it shifts the immediate effort to defending Europe and West Asia.

It is a long way from the impermeable shield that President Reagan described in glowing terms in 1983, an announcement that turned into a diplomatic triumph even while it was a technological flop. Ever since, missile defence has always been more about international politics than about new military technology.

In the last years of the cold war, it helped nudge the Soviets toward agreements that sharply reduced nuclear arsenals, a process that Obama hopes to revive at the end of the year. In the George W Bush years, it was about expanding NATO and, under the cover of building antimissile bases to protect against North Korean attack, a subtle warning to China that its power in the Pacific would not go unchecked.

Now, in the age of Obama, the vision has descended from the stars to sea level. A president who was still in college during Reagan’s famous missile defence speech has turned a scaled-back version of the technology, which would first be based on ships, to a new mission: Convincing Israel and the Arab world that Washington is moving quickly to counter Iran’s influence, even as it opens direct negotiations with Tehran for the first time in 30 years.

For Obama, it is a step fraught with some risk. Within hours of his announcement, charges were flying that in his first major confrontation with the Russians, he had backed down, giving in to Moscow’s opposition to the Bush plan to place missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Technology and threat

“The politics of this was driving him in the other direction, against appearing to back down,” said William Perry, who served as defence secretary in the Clinton administration. “But he went with where the technology is today — and where the threat is today.”
During last year’s presidential campaign, missile defence was tricky territory for Obama. His liberal base was allergic to the very words. Obama, eager to show that he was neither a neophyte nor soft on defence, talked about embracing those technologies that were ‘proven and cost-effective’.

Nine months into his presidency, Obama has begun to describe what that means. He is not abandoning the two antimissile bases built on American soil in the Bush years, one in Alaska and one in California. But his aides — led by the one veteran of the cold war in his cabinet, defence secretary Robert M Gates — argue that Iran and North Korea were taking far longer to develop intercontinental missiles than many feared a decade ago.
The urgency, they argued, lies in addressing a more imminent threat: Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles.

First among those weapons is the Shahab III, the missile that can reach Israel and parts of Europe. It is also the missile that American, Israeli and European intelligence services have charged that Iran hopes to fit with a nuclear warhead. Iran denies that but has refused to answer questions from international inspectors about documents that appear to link the missile programme to its nuclear efforts.

That standoff has fed the conviction inside the White House that the Iranian threat needs to be countered. But officials argued that the faster, and surer, way to accomplish that goal was to scrap  Bush’s plan, which would have based antimissile batteries too far from Iran to be useful against short- and medium-range missiles, and put them closer to Tehran.

“One of the realities of life is the enemy gets a vote,” said Gen James E Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Obama’s critics argue that while Iran is rightly a major focus of missile defence, it is not the only one, and that in dismantling the Bush plan, the new president is undercutting American allies.

“I fear the administration’s decision will do just that,” Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican rival in last year’s presidential election, said, adding that the decision came “at a time when Eastern European nations are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.”

But Obama is betting that over time he can assuage bruised feelings in Europe. And he is betting that his credibility will rise in West Asia, where he can now argue that the American missile shield will defend both Israel and the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are signs that all of them may be interested in nuclear capabilities of their own — especially if they believe that the US will not stand up to Iran.

Surveillance

But Obama may also be vulnerable to charges that he could be leaving parts of the continental US defenceless if Iran makes bigger strides with long-range missiles. His critics point to Iran’s launching of a satellite into space in February. The craft orbited the Earth for nearly three months, passing repeatedly over the US.

“Iran has already demonstrated it has the capability to develop long-range missiles,” said Robert Joseph, one of the architects of Bush’s missile defence strategy, who was highly critical of  Obama’s decision. “They have both the capability and intention to move forward.”

The Obama administration counters that Iran has no long-range rockets and that the threat has been slower to develop than expected.

Twenty-six years after Reagan’s famous speech, the most visible element of his strategy is a system of missile interceptors that sprawl across the wilds of Alaska and a sister base in California. The system’s ‘kill vehicles’ are meant to zoom into space and destroy enemy warheads — presumably a single North Korean launching — by force of impact. Military and private experts say the West Coast interceptors could also smash an Iranian warhead, unless it was headed toward the East Coast of the US. That is why the Bush administration wanted to erect additional interceptors in Poland. To advocates of the classic vision of missile defence, it is unconscionable to leave the East Coast unprotected.
But critics of the interceptor system say its flight tests have repeatedly fallen short, and call its supposed protection a mirage.

Now comes the next debate: Whether the Obama plan is any more technologically feasible than past efforts.

So Obama faces the same challenge as Reagan: Winning the argument that his version of missile defence is workable — or at least workable enough to be a potent political weapon.

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