The Missile Defense Obsession

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 4, 2008; 1:56 PM

President Bush's obsession with missile defense was a distraction pre-9/11, is arguably an anachronism post-9/11, and has meant billions of dollars spent on unproven technology.

But no matter. Because Bush is on a roll. Yesterday, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, all 26 members of NATO endorsed his plan to build a controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

And signs are that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has denounced the proposal as unnecessary and provocative, may even go along with some version of Bush's plan when the two leaders meet on Sunday -- although it may only be a Potemkin agreement, aimed at buying time until the next U.S. administration.

Bush's History

When Bush first arrived at the White House, missile defense was at the top of his national security agenda.

According to former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, the intense focus on missile defense was a major reason that administration officials, and particularly then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, waved off his increasingly urgent warnings of an al- Qaeda attack in the weeks and months before 9/11. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Rice was supposedly scheduled to deliver a major speech designating missile defense as the cornerstone of Bush's new national security strategy.

In the post-9/11 world, of course, the primary threat of mass destruction comes not from a nuclear-armed rogue state, but from terrorists smuggling a weapon onto a cargo ship or across a border.

Nevertheless, Bush's enthusiasm for missile defense has never waned. Twenty five years after Ronald Reagan proposed what became known as the "Star Wars" program, Bush clearly wants to make it a key part of his legacy.

In October, Bush made a full-throated argument for the European missile shield at the National Defense University. (See my Oct. 24 column, Star Wars, the Sequel.) That's the same place where, in May 2001, he raised the specter of a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear ballistic missiles and described a "a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world."

The News

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's success in winning over once-skeptical European governments bolsters his position heading into talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has denounced the shield as the start of a new arms race. The alliance said the system should be expanded, with the participation of NATO countries and Russia, to protect all of Europe. . . .

"Missile defense represented Bush's biggest achievement at the three-day summit and a striking turnabout from the ambivalence Europeans harbored not long ago. Bush wants to build a sophisticated radar facility in the Czech Republic and station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as a hedge against Iran, which is developing ballistic missiles and enriching uranium that Western officials worry could eventually be used to build nuclear weapons.

"The Bush administration says the eastern location of Poland and the Czech Republic is ideal to allow early radar sighting of enemy missiles coming in from the Middle East and the launching of interceptors. Other analysts see politics also playing a role in the two countries' selection -- the new, former communist members are more supportive of the project than their Western neighbors and would be further anchored to the alliance by hosting the missile facilities."

The NATO communique states that: "Ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies' forces, territory and populations. Missile defence forms part of a broader response to counter this threat. We therefore recognise the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European based United States missile defence assets."


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