Obama will be supported by Congressional Republicans in militancy against any Russian position
To see whether such a shift is possible with respect to missile defense let’s first apply it to the most acute of today’s “short-term fire-fighting exigencies”: the civil war in Syria, where the Obama Administration, in cahoots with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, has acted less like a fire-fighter than a firebug. Repeatedly, Russia and China have suggested that a Syrian settlement must result from negotiation and compromise, with Foreign Minister Lavrov even meeting recently with a key opposition figure. Meanwhile, Secretary Clinton is still trying to breathe new life into a faltering winner-take-all policy predicated on Bashar al-Assad’s ouster by reshuffling the leadership of the various Sunni jihadi terror groups that dominate the Syrian rebels.
If the Obama Administration is prepared to listen to the views of Moscow, Beijing, and other potential partners on missile defense or anything else, “listening” can’t be just a pro forma exercise that needs to be endured in the course of battering the other side into acquiescing to a predetermined outcome, as has characterized Western policy on the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. Quite to the contrary, the process of reaching accord among the Permanent Members (if properly functioning, today’s approximation of the generally successful 19th century Concert of Powers) in some circumstances may be more important than the actual outcome. Depending on the issue, even a settlement that is less than optimal in the view of one or another of the powers (or of the subject, for example Syria’s various communities) may be objectively more valuable in the international context because it results from a genuine compromise.
This is a standard that clearly should apply with respect to missile defense. As a Washington insider who enthusiastically supported the concept when proposed by Ronald Reagan in the context of the US-Soviet nuclear standoff, I am somewhat mystified by dogged US insistence, by Republicans and Democrats alike since the 1980s, on the need for a defense against Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles that the United States insists Tehran never will be allowed to possess in any case. Such insistence is not the result of European demands to be defended against this nonexistent threat. It has all the earmarks of a policy driven by Congressional, Pentagon, and contractor pork considerations and bureaucratic inertia, mixed with a self-referential “logic” that confuses capabilities with strategic imperatives (“we can build it, so we should”). Or more plausibly, this really is aimed against Russia, either directly to degrade Moscow’s strategic capability or indirectly as a subliminal beachhead of US and NATO strategic dominance over Russia.
But let’s assume there really is a valid strategic need for missile defense from an American/NATO perspective. Let’s further assume that Russia and China – who oddly seem to be even less terrified of “rogue state” missile attack than the complacent Europeans – are willing to accept the same premise regarding their own defense needs. Would it be possible for Washington/Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, perhaps others (New Delhi comes readily to mind) to start with a joint commission of experts to identify genuine missile threats from specified third parties and then, from a purely technical and borderless perspective, outline what a seamless defense of all the participants would look like – and only after that wrestle with the inevitable (and heretofore fatal) issues of system control? If there really is good will on all sides, the answer should be “Yes”, with the primary deliverable a valuable confidence-building exercise and the missile defense itself a secondary (and hopefully not too costly) byproduct.
But if that goodwill does exist, it’s imperative we start with Syria. While the Obama Administration may have reduced slightly the strident tone of its pronouncements, there’s as yet no indication of a change in substance or willingness to accept genuine negotiations without preconditions or a priori demands, with Iran part of the solution no less than Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Also, if we keep in mind the boost winning an election gives to what already are inflated and arrogant personalities – plus the fact that militancy against any Russian position is one of the few policy areas where Obama will be supported and even pressed forward by most Congressional Republicans – it’s hard to be optimistic.