Obama and Missile Defense

On this critical issue, the president-elect is not off to a good start.

Presidential transitions provide the opportunity to predict how an incoming administration will govern. While the Obama transition is proceeding largely behind the scenes, commentators have been hard at work examining the emerging evidence to reach sweeping conclusions about the administration’s likely direction.

While it is much too early to reach any firm conclusions, a few substantive events have taken place. Consider, for example, the established tradition of a president-elect’s series of calls to world leaders, to introduce himself and receive their congratulations. One of Barack Obama’s first such conversations took place last Friday with Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

From the press reports and statements regarding their brief exchange it seems Messrs. Obama and Kaczynski drew radically different conclusions on a critical issue — missile defense. Mr. Kaczynski raised the subject, given the recent U.S.-Polish agreement to base missile defense assets in Poland. In the words of the Polish press statement about the call, Mr. Kaczynski heard Mr. Obama say “that the missile defense project would continue.”

The Obama transition promptly issued a rebuttal: “President-elect Obama made no commitment on it. His position is as it was throughout the campaign — that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable.”

This was a remarkable statement. Mr. Obama contradicted a head of state, clinging to a campaign position that could most kindly be described as weak and ambiguous. The statement also reflected a naiveté in the structuring of such transition conversations — and future dealings with truly unfriendly foreign leaders — that could have been avoided.

Importantly, the Obama-Kaczynski telephone call must be seen in the context of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s speech just two days before, where he threatened to base Russian missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave, targeting our proposed missile defense deployments in Poland. Mr. Medvedev’s words were more than just a direct challenge to President-elect Obama on missile defense. They were also a direct challenge to the Polish government, which reached an agreement with the Bush administration just days after the Russian invasion of Georgia. The Poles were out on a limb, and Mr. Medvedev was testing the strength of that limb and the strength of the incoming U.S. president. Both now look disturbingly weak.

To be sure, one could argue that the Poles should not so quickly have issued an unequivocal statement without checking with Mr. Obama’s handlers. But so too the Obama team should have understood that foreign leaders, both friends and adversaries, are in a state of high tension, hoping to get the president-elect to give his stamp of approval for their agendas before the inertia of the permanent government gets in the way.

Mr. Kaczynski’s gambit may have been the first, but it won’t be the last, and those hundreds of Obama foreign-affairs advisers should have known it was coming. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs, Arab-Israeli affairs and a host of other critical problems are thundering toward Mr. Obama as Jan. 20 approaches.

Freeing America from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty’s antiquated constraints is rightly regarded as one of President Bush’s most significant achievements. In 2001, we believed that the Russian strategic threat had eased. But the emerging threats from rogue states possessing a few nuclear-capable ballistic missiles required that we develop adequate defenses — especially because many emerging nuclear-weapons states do not accept the same calculus of deterrence that maintained the Cold War’s uneasy nuclear standoff. The demise of the ABM Treaty allows America to defend itself from these threats.

For a new Obama administration to retreat from this achievement, as many in the arms-control “community” have advocated, would be a significant step backward. His campaign position about deployment after the technology is “proved” is an excuse never to deploy missile defenses — because nothing in the military field is ever conclusively proven for all time. Rebuffing Mr. Kaczynski is also precisely the wrong response to Mr. Medvedev’s provocation. It will surely be read as weakness, and not only in Moscow. In fact, Moscow announced yesterday there would be no more missile-defense negotiations before Jan. 20.

How should Israel and the Arab world now contemplate the prospects for rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the prospects for turmoil there and enhanced Iranian influence in the Middle East? Will North Korea — whoever is in charge — now kick back and wait for Jan. 20? The list of questions is far longer than the list of Mr. Obama’s answers.

To repeat, it is much too early to draw larger conclusions from this one episode. On the existing postelection evidence, we cannot tell whether Mr. Obama will govern on the left or the center-left, or whether he is simply passive and risk-averse. But on balance, his conversation with Mr. Kaczynski points toward a weakening of the U.S. defense posture, indifference to allies under duress, and the need to satisfy his natural constituency within the Democratic Party. Let us now await the next pieces of evidence.

Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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