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Affirming Reagan's Missile Defense Vision

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps tests dozens of missiles during maneuvers in 2006.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps tests dozens of missiles during maneuvers in 2006. (By Sajjad Safari -- Associated Press)

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By Andrew Nagorski
Friday, September 25, 2009

If Ronald Reagan was watching the news from afar last week, he had to be smiling. Not because of President Obama's decision to abandon the planned deployment of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Reagan certainly wouldn't like the political symbolism of that gesture -- walking away from an agreement with two allies in Central Europe and appearing to bend to pressure from the Kremlin. As a partisan fighter, he would be in line with the Republican chorus of disapproval.

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But on a more fundamental level, Reagan would recognize that the announcement represents a watershed moment in American politics. It signals that, for the first time since Reagan made his "Star Wars" speech in 1983 spelling out his vision of a missile shield that would protect the United States against nuclear attack, both political parties have accepted his notion that the country needs an effective missile defense system. The debate is no longer focused on whether to build such a system but on what kind of system will do the job better against what sorts of threats.

In the Reagan era, almost all Democrats and even some Republicans felt the president was dangerously delusional in believing such a system could work, and even more dangerous for promoting it. After all, the Cold War premise was MAD: Mutually assured destruction relied on the knowledge of each superpower's vulnerability to nuclear attack to prevent the rockets from flying. Any attempt to suggest that mutual destruction wouldn't be inevitable once nuclear weapons were used, the thinking went, increased the chances of a huge miscalculation with devastating consequences.

Many Democrats conveniently forgot that Jimmy Carter, during the final year of his administration, modified MAD by accepting Defense Secretary Harold Brown's concept of a "countervailing strategy." In essence, this meant trying to bomb select targets in the Soviet Union first, seeking to force that country's surrender before its total destruction or a retaliatory strike. When Reagan took the notion of a winnable war further by proclaiming his Strategic Defense Initiative, he wasn't about to get significant support from the other side of the aisle.

Fast-forward to the presidency of George W. Bush. Once again, many Democrats instinctively opposed his plan to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe. While Republicans like to say the Democrats' motivation was softness toward the Kremlin, there were still liberal stalwarts who hated the idea of any missile defense system, believing that it would undermine disarmament efforts. That's why Obama's cautious, noncommittal pronouncements on missile defense during the 2008 campaign worried some of his most fervent supporters as well as his opponents.

But now the president has argued that his plan will produce "stronger, smarter, swifter" missile defense than the Bush alternative. In other words, the Obama administration's line, as spelled out by the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others, is unambiguous when it comes to embracing missile defense as a necessary component of the U.S. arsenal. By focusing on the more immediate threat of Iranian short- and medium-range missiles, it will also be concentrated on projecting American power to defend Europe and the Middle East in the first instance -- while effectively putting off the question of how best to defend the homeland against intercontinental ballistic missiles (from Iran or any other country) further down the line.

All of this has generated headlines that Obama has turned the Reagan concept of missile defense on its head, since he has reversed the order of priorities. There's some truth in those statements, but they all relate to tactics, not principle. The larger point is that, in political terms, Obama has done for missile defense what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform. Once Clinton embraced welfare reform, an initiative launched by Republicans and instinctively hated by many Democrats, the debate turned to the questions of what kind of reform and on what terms, rather than treating the old welfare system as untouchable.

So, too, with missile defense and the overall national security strategy. Republicans argue that Obama has allowed too many cuts in missile defense programs, even before last week's decision, to argue credibly that he will strengthen our deterrent capability. But now his administration's priority is to prove those critics wrong by building a system that will be effective not just against short- and medium-range missiles but, when needed in the future, also against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

You can bet that Obama does not want to run in 2012 on a platform proclaiming that the country has no need for a strong missile defense system. Quite the contrary. Which means Ronald Reagan's vision is now a bipartisan one -- and fully vindicated.

Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek foreign correspondent and editor, is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute.


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