America's Sugar and Missile Deal

We all remember Mary Poppins, the magical English nanny of movie fame who appeared on the scene to care for wayward children and sing “Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Well, “Nanny” President Bush traveled to Europe recently to try and persuade our security-dependent allies and erstwhile strategic partner Russia to swallow bitter medicine — an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. His spoon full of sugar included an offer of aid, promises and a new “strategic framework.” Now, however, the lame duck president needs to magically convince Americans that this is a sweet deal. 

The devil is in the details. Europe is as much at risk from rogue missiles as is the United States. Yet while we are footing the bill to build a missile field in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, the deal gives our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners say over when and if the ABM system is ever used. Finally, Bush is buying Russian acquiescence by promising Moscow great access and, thereby, possibly compromising the future security of the system. 

Most NATO leaders agree with Bush that “The need for missile defense in Europe is real and it is urgent.” Even Jaap de Hoop, NATO’s secretary general, warned “We have to defend ourselves … against the great danger of ballistic missiles and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." De Hoop’s view explains why in spite of European skepticism NATO unanimously backed the proposed US ABM system during the alliance’s conference last week.  

For years the US has negotiated with Poland for the right to station 10 missile interceptors there and the Czech Republic to install a tracking radar as a vital part of America’s ABM network. Those deals, already sweetened with American aid, are almost complete and the European link should be ready for limited use by 2011 and fully operational by 2013. 

The system is designed to intercept and destroy long-range ballistic missiles during the midcourse phase of flight and will extend America’s network as well as link with NATO’s Active Layered Threatre Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBM) program. ALTBM is expected to be operational in 2010.  

Until recently, some NATO members bowed to Russia’s objections and opposed the US’s European midcourse BMD system. Moscow complained that the system would undermine its own nuclear deterrent. The US dismissed this argument because Moscow’s robust ballistic missile arsenal armed with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles could quickly overwhelm ten interceptors at the Polish site.  

Anticipating Russia’s dissatisfaction, Bush sent his secretaries of defense and state to Moscow last month to negotiate what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized as a six-page “confidence-building document.” 

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the deal would, if agreed to, grant Russian access to the European ABM sites but only if the Czech and Polish governments concurred. It would also require the US to consult with Moscow before increasing the number of interceptors and promises that the ABM system would not be activated until Iran conducts flight tests of a missile capable of reaching Europe. 

Last week at NATO’s conference in Bucharest, Putin acknowledged “…that our US partners are thinking about measures to improve confidence and transparency and that work will continue.” That statement won NATO’s support for the ABM proposal which then passed unanimously. 

Before returning to Washington, Bush met with Putin and Russia’s president-elect Dmitri Medvedev in Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea. There they discussed the draft “strategic framework” and specifically the European missile system and future arms reduction negotiations.  

The deal president Bush struck with NATO and the pending deal with the Russians provides a few benefits but many uncertainties. The principle benefit is that it potentially extends America’s national missile defense capability by providing early warning and the opportunity to intercept Iranian weapons before they strike European or American targets. 

A European midcourse system is beneficial because it links NATO’s anti-missile capabilities with America’s ABM system thus providing the continent a more robust defense that could help de-escalate crises and possibly dissuade adversaries from acquiring ballistic missiles. 

The proposed agreement includes reservations that Congress must consider, however. Specifically, America pays for Europe’s ABM. The US has already spent more than $120 billion to develop ballistic missile defense technologies and another $12.3 billion has been requested for 2009. This new investment deepens allied dependence on US capabilities with no end in sight. 

Extending America’s ABM protection to Europe comes with caveats. For example, who would have the authority to launch Europe-based US missiles? Would NATO’s bureaucracy render the missiles useless by requiring time-consuming approvals? 

Who will prioritize areas to be defended? Are European capitals or population centers priority and can the US save some of the missiles in the event numerous weapons are launched first at Europe but then later at America?  

The Russian part is complex as well. The proposed Putin-Bush deal is likely a typical Cold War ploy used by the Soviets to gain access to sensitive American technology. The proposed deal grants access for Russian technicians to peer inside our complexes and it provides Moscow’s policy makers leverage over when the ABM would be activated and a veto over any system expansion. 

Hidden in the shadows of the “strategic framework” is a long-held Russian objective – to eliminate America’s ABM. Bush abandoned the 1972 US-Soviet ABM Treaty in order to test and field our first generation ABM system. Now, Russia wants a new agreement and is using the Europe-based system as leverage.  

Any effort to slow or marginalize America’s ABM capabilities will only make the US more vulnerable to rogue nations such as Iran that proliferate these technologies and declare their intention to destroy the West.  

Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino tried to sugar-coat the ongoing negotiations by explaining, “You’ve heard the president say the Cold War is over, and if you look at what NATO just did this past week on missile defense people have come to the realization that together, working cooperatively, we can help deter or prevent an attack from a rogue nation in the Middle East, not from Russia." 

Would that things were so simple. The fact is that nations such as Iran present a serious and growing missile threat and a credible, multi-layered ABM defense is required. Any deal that handicaps America’s development of a missile-proof defense jeopardizes our safety and must be rejected. 

Giving Europeans and Russians leverage over our investment and safety could be dangerous and a bitter pill for Americans to swallow. The question now is whether Bush can find a “spoon full of sugar” big enough to make this deal palatable.