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Defanging Deterrence: The Fate of Missile Defense in an Obama Administration November 10, 2008

Posted by SV in Election 2008, Homeland Security, Nuclear Proliferation, President Bush, President Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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The Obama campaign was consistently centered around the ambiguous theme of change (after “hope”) and successfully marketed it to the American people.  The question now becomes, will this be selective change or drastic change?  After all, while Americans have given President Bush a low approval rating, not only does his approval rise when asked about certain issues, the vote of last Tuesday should not be seen as a total repudiation of Bush Administration policies.  There is, still, wide consensus on a number of issues.  Also, the percentage of people identifying themselves as liberal and conservative remained steady (despite the fact Rasmussen found that Democrats were four times as likely to want to take an exit poll).  So where does President-Elect Obama fit in on missile defense?

In fact, by searching all the transcripts of the Democratic debates, the subject of missile defense comes up once.  And that was by Senator Chris Dodd, who said we need a different set of priorities from missile defense (“investing in the bridges and the highways and the water systems” to be exact).  This is indicative of the Democratic Party’s stance on a vital defense issue.  They know it is popular, according to a Gallup survey in April 2002 (the most recent available), respondents supported the deployment of missile defense by 64% to 30%.  To oppose, cut, or reverse it is, then, a losing issue for Obama.

In the first presidential debate, Obama stated that “we are spending billions of dollars on missile defense.  And I actually believe that we need missile defense…but I also believe that, when we are only spending a few hundred million dollars on nuclear proliferation, then we’re making a mistake.”  Never mind the fact that counterproliferation is much cheaper than missile defense (MD) by definition, his solution is to cut MD and funnel some of the money to inhibiting nuclear proliferation.  Though it sounds like a good idea, proliferation has been kept largely in check (there is no deterring regimes like Iran or North Korea from pursuing nuclear programs with “friends” like Russia or China nearby) by current efforts.

Obama, along with most other Democrats, has stated that MD needed to be “proven” before it is deployed (see the youtube clip).  “Proven” has become a code-word for bringing something back to the drawing board and indefinitely suspending it because there is always the chance it will not work 100% of the time.  So what does this mean for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA)?  Expect to see the airborne laser system scrapped completely, the R&D funding for space-based systems eradicated, and a minimal deployment (less than 30) of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California.  On a side note, Obama will likely be forced to move ahead with the “third site” in Europe due to Russia’s bellicose rhetoric about placing missiles in Kaliningrad.  To not do so would be international weakness not seen since Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna.

So far, it seems like the programs Obama would have cut are the ones that are, admittedly, years away from deployment.  But, enter Barney Frank stage left with this quote.  The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee (of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae fame) believes the US can cut the defense budget by an astounding 25%.  Such an unprecedented cut would come not just from ending the war in Iraq but also from MD and other future weapons systems.  Where, therefore, does “pragmatic, centrist” Obama mesh with the most-liberal-Senator-in-the-Senate Obama?

Despite extraordinary progress in the past eight years in the area of missile defense, Obama is likely going to set his “scapel” (or hatchet) to missile defense and bring it down to Clinton-era levels.  How else does he expect to pay for his massive health-care, tax rebates, and auto bailout plans?  “Proven” systems like the Aegis destroyers, SM-3 interceptrs, PAC-3 terminal missile defenses may survive the bloodletting.  But the goal of a layered sea, land, and air-based defense that could intercept missiles in their boost, midcourse, or terminal phases will be gone for four years.  If China or North Korea were looking for the opportune moment to launch an electromagnetic pulse attack or threaten nuclear blackmail, the next four years look pretty promsing to them.  As Obama makes abundantly clear in this primary-era ad (which you must watch), American primacy is not at the top of his priority list.  His pipe dream (or “smack,” since I guess he can afford it now) involves a world without nuclear weapons or rapidly developed combat systems.  Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and Caracus must be euphoric.