Friday, September 18, 2009

Scaling back Reagan’s starry vision

The new plan that President Obama laid out for a missile shield against Iran on Thursday turns Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Star Wars system on its head: Rather than focusing first on protecting the continental United States, it shifts the immediate effort to defending Europe and the Middle East.

It is a long way from the impermeable shield that President Reagan described in glowing terms in 1983, an announcement that turned into a diplomatic triumph even while it was a technological flop. Ever since, missile defense has always been more about international politics than about new military technology.

That's the rub of it: Reagan said it would be a magnificent technological wonder that would make the US safe from all missiles, but it has never been built. That is so typical of Reagan and Reaganisms: tell it, make it sound great, and ignore the fact that it is untrue (also known as a lie).

That standoff has fed the conviction inside the White House that the Iranian threat needs to be countered. But officials argued Thursday that the faster, and surer, way to accomplish that goal was to scrap Mr. Bush’s plan, which would have based antimissile batteries too far from Iran to be useful against short- and medium-range missiles, and put them closer to Tehran.

Mr. Obama’s critics argue that while Iran is rightly a major focus of missile defense, it is not the only one, and that in dismantling the Bush plan, the new president is undercutting American allies.

“I fear the administration’s decision will do just that,” Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican rival in last year’s presidential election, said Thursday, adding that the decision came “at a time when Eastern European nations are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.”

Russian adventurism, such as it is, as in its standoff with Georgia, isn't much,

But Mr. Obama is betting that over time he can assuage bruised feelings in Europe. And he is betting that his credibility will rise in the Middle East, where he can now argue that the American missile shield will defend both Israel and the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are signs that all of them may be interested in nuclear capabilities of their own — especially if they believe that the United States will not stand up to Iran.


So Mr. Obama faces the same challenge as Mr. Reagan: Winning the argument that his version of missile defense is workable — or at least workable enough to be a potent political weapon.

Making the primary aim of the missile system political.

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