“Star Wars” and the True Phantom Menace

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, March 31, 2009)

bfPerhaps no program better symbolizes the Ronald Reagan/ George W. Bush wing of the Republican Party than the national missile defense (NMD) system.

First proposed by Reagan in 1983 and pushed through by Bush nearly two decades later, the system is a perfect microcosm of its two fathers’ administrations. A multi-billion-dollar pork project funded with no sense of irony by self-proclaimed “small-government” conservatives? Check. A military overreaction that caused more problems than it set out to solve? Check. A program whose failures only became excuses to stubbornly keep going rather than come up with a better plan? An unneeded treaty violation whose very creation became a main argument for its existence? An insult to America’s allies that weakened diplomatic credibility? You get the idea.

Say what you will about the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” but at least it would have actually connected two Alaskan towns. That’s a level of success NMD would be hard pressed to match.

By leaving this boondoggle behind, however, Bush presented President Obama with an opportunity. Getting rid of the shield is good for America, if only for the savings such a move would generate for our national coffers and international reputation. If he can use the phasing out of this bloated program as leverage to gain meaningful concessions from Russia — which has always (and correctly) viewed the system’s deployment through the hole Bush tore in the 1972 ABM Treaty — that’s even better. And he can use the system to demonstrate the hypocrisy of some of his critics at home.

It’s a no-risk approach that Obama is already exploring.

As The New York Times reported earlier this month, Obama wrote a letter to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that acknowledged an obvious truth. The president wrote that, if Moscow ceased helping nations such as Iran to develop nuclear weapons, there would be no need for a missile shield at all. The letter proposed no explicit agreement, but Obama’s willingness to discuss the issue demonstrates diplomatic maturity — and an obvious change from the Bush Administration’s unilateral approach.

“What we are getting from our U.S. partners shows at least one thing, that our U.S. partners are ready to discuss the issue,” Medvedev said at a press conference days after receiving the hand-delivered letter. “That’s good, because only a few months ago we were getting different signals — that the decision has been made, there is nothing to talk about, that we will do everything as it has been decided.”

While Bush would often cite the attacks of 9/11 as a reason to support missile defense, he had already publicly declared his intention to revive the program in May 2001. By that time — after decades of America’s splurging on a mutual-deterrence approach to nuclear weaponry — a bipartisan consensus had already emerged that the securing of loose nuclear material should become the country’s top nuke-related priority. In the age of mutually assured destruction, the threat of a nation using a nuclear weapon against another — a murder-suicide pact — remains a fantasy. The real problem is organizations such as Al Qaida, Hezbollah, or Jemaah Islamiah getting their hands on loose weapons with the intent of actually deploying them.

But those groups don’t have the technology to fire intercontinental missiles, making missile defense as effective against them as a pistol against the flu bug. As heaps of drug smugglers and arms dealers have proven, it’s a whole lot easier to sneak a weapon into the country. The key is making sure they never get that weapon.

In a 2004 presidential debate, even Bush himself named loose nukes the most important national-security issue facing the country (as did John Kerry). Rather than follow up on that issue, however, Bush continued to provoke Russia — which, along with other ex-Soviet republics, is among the most likely locales for a nuke heist — by massing new weapons near its border as if it’s 1948. Just days after Obama sent his letter, National Intelligence director Dennis Blair confirmed that Iran remains years away from building a nuclear weapon despite help from Russia.

America needs Moscow’s help on both those fronts — ceasing new sales of nuclear materials and dismantling excess Cold War arsenal before it falls into the wrong hands. Bush’s May 2001 decision undid three decades of progress on arms control but, while it’s always difficult to close a Pandora’s box, Obama has built up enough international goodwill to do so. NMD would be a small price to pay.

Meanwhile, the system’s ineffectiveness is no secret. As of its December 2008 test, it had worked only seven of 12 times under optimal conditions (conditions no would-be foe would provide). And even the “successful” tests involved hitting some targets but not others. NMD has proven both provocative and impotent, as North Korea has used the presence of this technology as an excuse for its own steps toward nuclear weapons and its high-profile missile tests.

Of course, this whole discussion is playing out against a backdrop of worldwide economic disarray that makes missile defense stand out even more as a case study in wasteful military spending. As the Pentagon has acknowledged, Bush made NMD the Defense Department’s largest weapons outlay. Still, it’s just business as usual for a military that, for the past few decades, has consumed enough pork to put Denny’s out of business. The defense budget Bush submitted for the 2009 fiscal year, for example, included $515.4 billion in discretionary money alone — which doesn’t include funding for Iraq or Afghanistan. Just a couple years’ defense budgets dwarf even the unprecedented price tag of the stimulus bill, without its potential rewards. Spending those kinds of dollars year after year is an under-cited cause of America’s bloated deficits and national debt, which in turn helped hasten the economic crisis.

At the same time far-right Republican governors such as Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal are refusing federal stimulus money for their states by claiming it is wasteful spending, they see no contradiction in continuing to blow billions of taxpayer money on military pork. In the past few weeks, groups such as the Heritage Foundation have already come to NMD’s defense while Palin’s own Alaska state legislature voted overwhelmingly to support its deployment. The hypocrisy is plain, and it provides an opening for this administration to be the one that finally gets military pork under control.

Obama always said he would support NMD only if it were effective and affordable. It has repeatedly proven neither. Shooting down missile defense is a good start to launching serious military spending reform at home and security cooperation abroad.

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