September 17, 2009 | Scripps Howard News Service

Why Is Missile Defense Controversial?

Missile defense – as the term might suggest – is defensive, not offensive. Brilliant American scientists have developed sophisticated technologies to prevent missiles – including those armed with nuclear warheads – from reaching their intended victims. If we are willing to share this capability to protect people around the world, Sen. Jim DeMint asked, “What is controversial about that?”

I'd like to take a stab at answering the Senator's question (raised at a Heritage Foundation forum in which I was privileged to participate this week) but first, a little context is in order.      

Iran's ruling mullahs have the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East; simultaneously, they are working overtime to develop nuclear weapons. This poses an increasing threat to Israel (Tehran's explicitly stated goal is to “wipe Israel off the map”), to the U.S. (a “world without America is attainable,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said), and to Europe as well — the softest targets are often the most tempting.

Some European cities already can be reached by Iran's medium- and intermediate-range Shahab-class missiles. Many more will be within the cross-hairs once Iran acquires long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)- estimates put that about six years out.

Stopping Iran's nuclear and missile development would be the best option. But the Bush administration outsourced negotiations with Iran to European diplomats who made no progress. The Obama administration has offered Iran direct negotiations. Ahmadinejad and associates initially showed no interest. More recently, they have said they'll be glad to talk – about “respect for the rights of nations” and stuff like that, but not about ending their weapons programs.

A strong bipartisan majority in Congress has prepared legislation that would impose what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called “crippling sanctions”- a cut-off of Iran's gasoline imports. So far, however, President Obama has been in no rush to find out whether such pressure might prove productive.

To defend Europe – and American troops stationed there — against the possibility of a missile attack from Iran will require a “Third Site.” The U.S. currently maintains one ground-based missile site in Fort Greely, Alaska, and a second at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Third Site would be in Poland (10 missile interceptors) and the Czech Republic (a radar installation). This would provide “the fastest and most cost-effective protection against the long-range missiles that Iran is projected to have by 2015,” Lt. Gen. Trey Obering (ret.), former head of the Missile Defense Agency, and Eric Edelman, fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis noted in a recent op-ed.  They noted, too, that such interceptors have been thoroughly tested.

Nevertheless, as I write this, well-informed sources on the Hill tell me that on Thursday President Obama will officially kill the Third Site. Why? Apparently because Moscow objects – even though the interceptors, while sufficient to block a limited number of Iranian missiles, could not possibly threaten Russia.

The Kremlin's objections almost certainly stem less from security concerns than from ambitions for regional domination. What, if anything, Obama will get from the Russians in return for this capitulation remains to be seen.

Russian officials are not the only opponents of missile defense, however. Also making this a controversial issue is a curious coalition of what might be called the ideologically misguided, the incorrigibly naïve and the terminally myopic.

In the first category are those who believe that most of the problems in the world are caused by the U.S. and Israel, and that the cure is therefore to “address the grievances” of those who hate us, rather than protect ourselves from them.

Members of the second group have convinced themselves that leaving ourselves vulnerable and promoting global disarmament would set a moral example that such autocrats as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez surely will follow.

In the third category are the businessmen – mostly in Europe – who sell Iran's rulers whatever weapons components they will pay for, as well as the university administrators – many in America – who train Iranian nuclear scientists because not to do so might be regarded as discriminatory.

Other opponents of missile defense note that during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union avoided nuclear conflict thanks to a doctrine known as MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. But as someone who reported from both the Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic in its early days, I can tell you that while the USSR was an “evil empire,” it was not an irrational one. Russian Communists saw no prospect of a nuclear Armageddon transporting them to a paradise inhabited by black-eyed virgins; few were willing to sacrifice their lives so that other Communists might triumph. The same can not be said of the various species of militant jihadis. Would there have been any way to deter those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 8 years ago this month?

The Third Site would not only help counter the growing Middle Eastern ballistic missile threat, it also would strengthen transatlantic security. As Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht has pointed out, Europe's transatlanticists – not a burgeoning club – “have stuck their necks out in both the Czech Republic and Poland. If missile defense fails, pro-American forces throughout Europe will take a serious hit. … The widespread European reflex to appease Russia would likely grow, perhaps exponentially.”

At the same time, Iran's ruling mullahs will be delighted to learn that the West not only is unserious about preventing them from acquiring nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, but prefers to remain defenseless as well. They will view this as weakness. And they will find such weakness provocative, as tyrants always do.

Americans overwhelmingly favor missile defense, as poll after poll has revealed. But many don't realize that what we have deployed so far is not nearly adequate to the evolving threat. We are encouraging our enemies to invest in increasingly advanced weapons technologies in the belief that, at a time of their choosing, they will be able to overwhelm our outdated system.

American policy should be designed to elicit the opposite response: It should make clear to our enemies that resources spent on nukes and missiles will be wasted because we have both the means and the will to block them. American scientists are providing the means. Sen. DeMint not withstanding, too few American politicians are providing the will.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.


Read the Spanish translation here.


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