Under the New Missile Defense Plan There Are Still Options for Assurance

Between the statements of Obama and Gates and the military factsheet outlining the new approach to missile defense, it is apparent that the main motivation for altering our missile defense strategy is strategic.  The new approach, which combines sea- and land-based missile defenses, is an effective and cost efficient way to counter the actual Iranian missile threat.  Some on the right, including members of Congress, have said Obama's plan is a step back in our defense against Iranian missiles.  However, I haven't seen any credible evidence indicating that is true.  Gates and Cartwright said SM3 capabilities were the best way to counter short- and medium-range missiles that Iran posses.  And, Obama pointed out that there was consensus among the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs in favor of the proposal.  All three also have been clear that as new missile threats emerge, the US will consider other missile defense capabilities.

The more credible argument against the shift in missile defense is political not strategic.  As the argument goes, abandoning the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic will embolden Russia while cheapening our alliance commitments.  A CSM article said hawks in Russia might take advantage:

And Russian hawks might see the dropping of the missile shield as weakness in Washington and press the Kremlin for even less compromise on key US-Russia issues.
“I think the reaction of Russia’s leadership will be positive on the whole,” says Mr. Sharavin. “But Russian hawks are very likely to find faults, and use this to build up their own positions.”

And, a Reuters article laid out a more specific scenario for Russian aggressiveness:

Russian diplomacy is largely a zero-sum game and relies on projecting hard power to force gains, as in last year's war with Georgia over the rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or the gas dispute with Ukraine at the start of this year.
Western concepts of "win-win" deals and Obama's drive for 21st century global partnerships are not part of its vocabulary.
Diplomats here say Moscow hardliners could read the shield backdown as a sign of Washington's weakness. Far from doing the bidding of the United States, they may instead press for further gains to shore up Russian power in the former Soviet bloc.
Ukraine, Georgia and other Kremlin foes in the ex-Soviet Union may be the first to feel the consequences.
Poland and the Czech Republic are also nervous. In Warsaw, the timing of the U.S. move is particularly delicate as it coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland.
Analysts are particularly concerned about Ukraine, which faces a presidential election next January. Most of Russia's vast gas exports flow through its territory and the country reluctantly hosts a large Russian naval base.
Russia has already rebuked Kiev for its "anti-Russian" stance and refused to deal with President Viktor Yushchenko, tactics which recall those used with Georgia in the period leading up to last year's war.
Diplomats cite the Crimean peninsula -- Russian territory until the 1950s and home to Moscow's Black Sea fleet as well as thousands of Russian passport-holders -- as one potential flashpoint.
In a sign of the level of concern, one senior Western envoy here privately estimated the chances of a Russian military intervention in the Crimea over the next year at 50-50.
Georgia could be another tinder box.

There were also some statements from Poland and the Czech Republic that made it appear that the decision could cause our allies to feel abandoned.

However, these statements are premature.  While the initial perception is that the US has abandoned our allies, this could easily be reversed.  Obama realizes the risk.  In his statement, Obama went out of his way to reiterate the US commitment to our Eastern European allies including a mention of NATO Article V.  Obama has also dispatched diplomats to smooth things over:

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Sandy Vershbow were dispatched from Washington yesterday to lead a U.S. delegation to Prague, Warsaw and Brussels for consultations on the decision, POLITICO was told.

Despite the initial reaction, it may be possible to reestablish a strong relationship with Poland and the Czech Republic.  As I wrote previously, Polish leaders have indicated that the main reason they wanted missile defense installations was accompanying US troops.  However, certainly missile defense isn't the only way the US can provide that kind of assurance.  Joshua Pollack made this argument a couple days before Obama's announcement:

In my opinion, linkage or leverage shouldn't be the central purpose of defensive systems in Europe. Basing a new architecture on these grounds--if it doesn't frustrate any lingering chance of Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran--may simply make current security problems worse, as it's likely to encourage Moscow to sell its own advanced air and missile defenses to Iran and beyond. And certainly, there are better ways for Washington to signal commitment to Eastern European allies.

And, I wrote last week:

[T]here are other ways the US can demonstrate our commitment to allies, like Poland and the Czech Republic, besides permanent missile defense facilities. However, if the Obama administration decides to shift our missile defense priorities (based on a more realistic assessment of Iranian missile capabilities and the need to cooperate with Russia), they should do so in a way that continues to show Poland and the Czech Republic that we are committed to their security (whether that's temporary missile defense, NATO facilities, a small US troop presence, or something else).

Therefore, the effect of Obama's decision on our alliance commitments is still up in the air.  If Russia becomes more assertive and bullies our allies (as described in the Reuters article above), without any response from the US, then certainly, our commitment to defending allies will be questioned.  However, if Obama takes other actions to show that the US is committed to the defense of Eastern European allies, it could easily reverse the perception.  This won't be an easy task.  According to a Financial Times blog post:

If, however, the Russians react by becoming more assertive and demanding - for example over Georgia and Ukraine - then Obama could end up looking foolish. There will certainly now be heightened anxiety in Central Europe. The Poles and the Czechs were, initially, not that keen on the anti-missile scheme. But they won’t like the implication that America has backed off, in the face of Russian pressure - or, even worse, that the Nato military committment to eastern Europe is anything other than rock solid. Recent opinion polls show that respect for America has risen in western Europe since Obama came in, but fallen in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. American diplomats have a big job of reassurance to do there.

However, US commitments to reestablish assurance are underway.  First, Obama's speech mentioned that the US would continue to work on advancing NATO missile defenses.  In the future, this could include NATO capabilities placed in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.  Second, the United States is not withdrawing all missile defense systems.  A Reuters report after Obama's announcement said the US would go forward with plans to locate a Patriot battery on Polish soil:

The United States will go ahead with deployment of a Patriot battery on Polish soil and the missiles will be armed, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Thursday, shortly after Washington said it was overhauling plans for a missile defense shield in central Europe..."The new element is that the American side has assured us that the Patriots will be armed and capable of being linked to our defense system," Sikorski told reporters. Recent Polish media reports had suggested that the Patriot missiles would be unarmed. For Poland, the Patriot battery is an important symbol of the U.S. commitment to its defense at a time when Russia, its communist-era overlord, is becoming more assertive in foreign and security policy…Under the Patriot deal clinched last year, the battery -- armed with about 100 missiles -- would be based in Poland for a short period each year in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to enable training and preparation of Polish troops and defense systems. A battery would be permanently stationed in Poland from 2012, Komorowski has said. Sikorski said on Thursday that Poland would also be invited by the United States in due course to host an element of Obama's revamped missile defense system. "We think this is an interesting offer... We are waiting for written proposals. This is an American decision. We will take a close look when we receive an offer," he said, without providing further details.

According to Lukasz Kulesa of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, these are the types of commitments that the US has to make to assure Poland that we are committed to their defense:

From the perspective of Central Europe’s, the greatest danger…would be to create the impression that NATO has somehow gone soft where its primary function of defending the territories of the member states is concerned…Therefore, such a move it is – if it is agreed within the alliance, would probably need to be somehow balanced by a set of decisions giving credible reassurances on the value of Article V…it’s about putting the physical infrastructure of the alliance within the member state…some of the allies would most probably expect the United States to increase its presence on their territory, though not necessarily by building new bases or new installation. I think the arrangements might be made between Poland and the United States on the nonpermanent deployment of the Patriots anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems in Poland… is an example of such an approach of seeking additional U.S. presence

Kulsea also argues that shifting control of missile defense to NATO could reduce the stigma attached to the system and reduce Russian objections.  Kulsea isn't the only person who thinks the Patriot could be sufficient to assure Poland:

Charles Gati, a Central Europe expert and professor at Johns Hopkins University, told POLITICO…Warsaw might be consoled if it could obtain the aforementioned Patriot missiles they were promised by the Bush administration…The functional benefit of the Patriot missiles Poland seeks, Gati explained, "“is that they have the capacity to shoot down some lower flying missiles," (as ones from Russia would be), which the other installations could not do. Permanent installation of Patriot missiles in Poland would involve its own set of diplomatic controversies, however, including in corners of the Pentagon and State Department, Gati indicated. He said one way they might get around that would be for Patriot missiles to be moved from Germany to Poland for something portrayed as a temporary exercise.

The US could make similar commitment to the Czech Republic or explore other options such as NATO exercises or temporary deployments of US troops that would provide tangible evidence of our commitment to their defense.

The point is that there are still options for assurance.  Obama is already starting to make commitments to make up for the "scrapped" installations.  In the next few weeks and months, Obama must continue to take concrete steps.  The US will need to make other tangible commitments and prevent Russian bullying.  If Obama follows this course, the US will appear as resolved as ever.