How to Lose Friends and Amuse Your Enemies

In less than a week’s time, the Obama administration gave in to Tehran’s demands, sawed off the limb that our East European allies had climbed onto on behalf of NATO, and signaled Moscow, Tehran, and North Korea that the United States will not stand up to their bullying tactics.  With that in mind, it’s not a good time to be America’s ally, while America’s enemies must be laughing themselves to sleep over outmaneuvering the United States on critical national security issues such as nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

For a while the administration took a firm position, as endorsed in July by the G-8, that it would give Tehran until the end of September to engage in serious discussions over its nuclear program – or it would get another round of, supposedly, tougher sanctions for defying the world’s condemnation of its pursuit of the ultimate weapon.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refused, stole an election, brutally cracked down on pro-democracy dissidents, conducted successful tests of ballistic missiles, arrested American hikers and jailed American journalists, replaced the hardliners in his security organizations with ultra-hardliners, and then offered to talk about everything except nuclear weapons.

The administration blinked and accepted Iran’s conditions.  It will soon begin talks with a brutal dictator, on the dictator’s terms, about subjects the dictator dictated, which, predictably, exclude the one thing – Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons – that U.S. diplomats desperately want to discuss.  Meanwhile, the centrifuges that produce nuclear weapons material continue spinning while the world has now learned of the existence of a previously undisclosed Iranian underground nuclear facility.

We have seen this play before.  Barring a successful preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the United States has one option to improve its defenses and those of its allies against Iran’s ever growing ballistic missile fleet, which will eventually be capable of delivering nuclear weapons: ballistic missile defense.

Recognizing the dangers, NATO adopted a strategy of seeking such defenses.   Resisting immense political bullying and military threats from Moscow – which continues to insist that the former captive nations of Eastern Europe have an obligation to remain captives – Poland and the Czech Republic agreed to host a limited defensive capability geared towards defeating the Iranian threat.

In February, President Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting that Russia’s help in pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program could lead to cancelation of the European missile defense deployment.  Having a financial interest in Tehran’s nuclear program, built in part by the Russians, Moscow refused and turned up the heat on Warsaw and Prague.  Now the Obama administration has canceled the European defensive sites, essentially signaling to Moscow that its bullying tactics worked, while getting nothing in return.

The administration asserts that its about-face has nothing to do with seeking to placate Russia at the expense of our NATO allies.  Undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright echoed this last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Instead, the administration justifies throwing the Poles and Czechs overboard with a new intelligence estimate which concludes Iran’s development of long-range ballistic missiles is proceeding more slowly  than earlier anticipated, while its shorter-range missile program has accelerated.  Therefore, the administration will refocus on defeating shorter-range missiles.  Given the track record of U.S. intelligence predictions, coupled with Iran’s brazen flaunting of its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and longer-range ballistic missiles, we should take little comfort in such assurances.  And let us be clear: despite the administration’s denials, it has desperately sought a way to jettison the previous plan in the interest of “resetting” relations with Russia.

Coming on the heels of more than a billion dollars in cuts to the missile defense budget; termination of the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, Multiple Kill Vehicle, and Airborne Laser programs; and reductions in the number of deployed Ground-Based Interceptors, the administration’s reversal on European missile defenses will not only reduce our ability to defend the U.S. homeland, but its political impact will likely have far-reaching negative consequences for American credibility that greatly exceed arcane technical arguments over which type of ballistic missiles Iran is more likely to acquire sooner.  Both our friends and our adversaries will draw lessons from the American reversals and diplomatic defeats.

One hopes that European allies will again agree to host U.S. defenses, which will be less capable against long-range threats.  But, having seen the resulting intimidation from Moscow while the United States walked away from its commitment, it will be a tougher sell.

Salvaging the situation will require the Administration to prevail in its negotiations with Iran, which is unlikely given recent history.  However, the Administration may be able to reassure allies that the United States remains a reliable security partner by restoring cuts to missile defense programs and recommitting itself to international programs with Israel, Japan, and NATO.  To do less will only confirm to Tehran and Moscow that their strategies of defiance and tactics of intimidation work.

Eric R. Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute and was a senior staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.  David J. Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting and served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy.

This article was originally published by the AEI Center for Defense Studies and is available at

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