On Friday, new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used the traditionally ignored Friday afternoon time period to announce an expansion of American missile defense on the Pacific coast, as an answer to threats from North Korea. What didn’t get much attention was a subsequent announcement of a missile-defense change on the other side of the world. It seems that Barack Obama has achieved maximum flexibility … and the Washington Post editorial board gently rebukes him for his “impudent” concession:
The Pentagon is canceling the planned fourth phase of an anti-missile system that had been scheduled for deployment in Poland in 2022. The SM3 IIb missile was significant for two reasons: It was the only interceptor planned for the Europe-based system that could have defended the United States against an attack from Iran; and it was the component of the system most decried by Russia, which claimed that it could be used against its intercontinental missiles.
As it did when it canceled a previous European missile plan in 2009, the administration insisted that its decision had nothing to do with Russia or its objections. The phase-four missile was dropped, officials said, because Congress had cut some of its funding, meaning it could not have been completed in the next decade, even while the timeline of possible ICBM threats is shortening. Officials say the money can be better spent on deploying more interceptors in the United States and improving their components. As proof that Moscow has not been appeased, the White House pointed to statements by Russian officials saying they are still unsatisfied with U.S. missile defense plans and continue to demand binding legal assurances that the system can’t be aimed at Russia.
Still, the fact remains that the United States has removed from its plans the missile that Russian officials previously cited as their foremost concern, just a few months after President Obama promised the Kremlin “greater flexibility” on missile defense after his reelection. In doing so, the administraton has eliminated the possibility of a defensive system that would give the United States two shots at an Iranian ICBM — what in Pentagon jargon is called a shoot-look-shoot capacity. It also has decoupled the European missile system from the defense of the continental United States. These compromises could have made sense as part of a broader agreement with Russia on missile defenses. To undertake them unilaterally, for what are portrayed as purely budgetary reasons, is imprudent.
Ah, “imprudent” — as in inconceivable. If the US was to cough up this critical component of missile defense, why would we not use that decision to gain concessions in the other direction? Obama already retreated on missile defense in his first term, using the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland to leave Warsaw twisting in the wind on ground-based interceptors, after having spent considerable political capital in agreeing to their installation in the first place.
This is yet another example of “smart power.” And it’s another example of how this administration has turned the Friday afternoon document dump into an art form.