Missile defences, bald men and combs

Commentary

In spite of Czech and Polish objections, the Obama administration was right to drop plans for radars and rocket interceptors in central Europe.

Like the proverbial bald men fighting over a comb, the debate over missile defences has turned into a bizarre argument over something Europeans never much wanted and do not really need. But the passions are real enough, for the missile issue has become a proxy for other disputes and resentments, mainly revolving around Russia, in which the protagonists are heavily invested.

So it scarcely matters to recall that that the US motivation in proposing an interceptor-rocket site in Poland, and a radar in the Czech Republic, really had nothing to do with protecting Europe. The George W Bush administration wanted a forward layer of defence against "rogue state" missiles potentially winging their way towards the US eastern seaboard, from Iraq, or Iran, or Libya - or even from North Korea. Given that missile interception is like trying to shoot down a bullet with a bullet, sole reliance on a one-shot defence with US-based interceptors offered scant reassurance - but a radar in eastern Europe could detect the threat early, and Europe-based interceptors could have a bite at stopping or attenuating the attack as it passed over.

Some incidental protection might be provided to Europe, but not much. The system is designed for high-trajectory missiles headed for the US, not the low, short-trajectory missiles coming at Europe out of the Middle East. On any geometry, south-eastern Europe is completely uncovered. And Europeans face the risk of finding themselves sprinkled with radioactive debris from successful interception of a US-bound warhead over their territory.

Europeans had never been too enthused by missile defence anyway, recalling that it is little use locking your upstairs windows if your front and back doors are open - the suitcase bomb was, and remains, a more credible threat. Most Europeans also worried about the Russian reaction - behind their synthetic rage over the deployment of ten interceptors lay a deep resentment at Bush's tearing-up of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the pillars of old-style superpower arms control. The subsequent evaporation of any missile threat from Iraq and Libya served further to weaken the case for the proposed defences.

None of this, however, was the point for the Czech and Polish governments, which welcomed the planned installations. They wanted not missile defences, but US "hostages" on their territory. Mistrustful of both the EU and NATO, they wanted the "triple lock" of a bilateral American security guarantee against Russia. And, as NATO and attendant defence contractors got busy with plans to "fill the coverage gap" in south-eastern Europe with shorter-range mobile interceptors (land- and sea-based), a whole new constituency signed up to the project.

So President Obama has taken the right decision. Pressing ahead with the planned installations would, for now, do nothing for either American or European security. If there is a need to address a regional Iranian threat with missile defences - something that needs a proper policy debate anyway - then other technical solutions are needed.

It does not help Obama at home or abroad that doing the right thing happens to give satisfaction to the Russians. But the Republican right is looking thoroughly irreconcilable anyway - and if central and eastern Europeans are falling out of love with NATO and the US, better to address the problem directly than by squabbling over something that is of no practical use to either party.

This piece was first published by E!Sharp.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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