In an article for The Weekly Standard, Alan Dowd, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, wonders where Barack Obama will "land" on the issue of missile defense. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama offered at least two different positions on the issue.
During one memorable sound bite, he vowed to "cut investments in unproven missile defense systems," but offered a revised stance a few weeks later, in a debate with John McCain. When the topic arose in that national forum, Mr. Obama offered a measure of support, saying "I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons."
So, which one will it be?
We'll find out in the coming weeks and, as Mr. Dowd writes, President-elect Obama would do well to stick with his more recent position. Both Tehran and Pyongyang are continuing their efforts to develop long-range missiles. Left unchecked, both will eventually have systems capable of delivering a nuclear weapon against the CONUS.
Meanwhile, Iranian missiles can already threaten most of the Middle East and southeastern Europe; North Korea's medium and intermediate range systems are capable of reaching the entire Korean peninsula and Japan. They can also threaten more distant targets including Guam, Hawaii, and portions of Alaska.
To counter that threat, the U.S. and its allied partners have been working--and deploying--a series of ballistic missile defense systems. As Mr. Dowd notes, these systems have achieved an 81% success rate since 2001, in a series of increasingly complex, hit-to-kill tests. He observes that " a growing global coalition prefers those odds over the zero-percent chance of success guaranteed by shutting down the missile defense program or consigning it to the lab."
But that's where missile defense technology may wind up, if Mr. Obama sides with members of his own party. A number of Senate Democrats, led by Carl Levin of Michigan, have threatened to slash missile defense spending by imposing unrealistic performance criteria. Under their standards, even successful programs like the Navy's Aegis/Standard Missile-3 ER would be in jeopardy, because they can't achieve a 100% success rate.
Obviously, Levin and his colleagues understand that no defense system can meet the benchmark--but that's the idea. By setting the bar impossibly high, they can justify extreme cuts in missile defense because the technology simply doesn't "measure up."
Of course, our adversaries are also attempting to influence the debate. Russia has threatened to deploy SS-26 missiles in the Kaliningrad region, allowing them to target interceptor rockets that the U.S. plans to base in Poland. North Korea and Iran have staged missile tests this year, offering a preview of their response to our planned deployments.
Will our next president take the bait? Mr. Obama's debate comments suggests he might support some forms of missile defense, but the president-elect will face still opposition from Congressional Democrats--the same Congressmen and Senators he needs to pass other elements of his agenda.
Against that backdrop, we can't see President Obama putting up much of a fight for missile defense programs. In fact, the next commander-in-chief is already sending mixed signals on the missile shield for western Europe. Only a day after Obama seemed to support the proposal (in a phone conversation with Poland's president), an aide clarified his position, saying the president elect was "non-committal" on the topic.
That's hardly reassuring to our allies, who have invested their own money--and political capital --in missile defense. That's why they hoping that Barack Obama will break his "original" campaign promise, and sustain key missile defense initiatives. As Mr. Dowd observes, at least 12 openly hostile regimes are currently working on missile programs--programs that pose a current or future threat to the U.S. and its allies. That alone should be enough for Mr. Obama to break with members of his party on the missile defense issue.
But don't get your hopes up.