The new plan that President Barack Obama laid out for a missile shield against Iran on Thursday turns Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Stars Wars system on its head: Rather than focusing first on protecting the continental United States, it shifts the immediate effort to defending Europe and the Middle East.
It is a long way from the impermeable shield that Reagan described in glowing terms in 1983, an announcement that turned into a diplomatic triumph even while it was a technological flop. Ever since, missile defense has always been more about international politics than about new military technology.
In the last years of the Cold War, it helped nudge the Soviets toward agreements that sharply reduced nuclear arsenals, a process that Obama hopes to revive at the end of the year. In the George W. Bush years, it was about expanding NATO and, under the cover of building anti-missile bases to protect against North Korean attack, a subtle warning to China that its power in the Pacific would not go unchecked.
In the age of Obama, the vision has descended from the stars to sea level. A president who was still in college during Reagan’s famous missile defense speech has turned a scaled-back version of the technology, which would first be based on ships, to a new mission: Convincing Israel and the Arab world that Washington is moving quickly to counter Iran’s influence, even as it opens direct negotiations with Tehran for the first time in 30 years.
For Obama, it is a step fraught with some risk. Within hours of his announcement, charges were flying that in his first major confrontation with the Russians, he had backed down, giving in to Moscow’s opposition to the Bush plan to place missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.
“The politics of this was driving him in the other direction, against appearing to back down,” said William Perry, who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration. “But he went with where the technology is today – and where the threat is today.”
During last year’s presidential campaign, missile defense was tricky territory for Obama. His liberal base was allergic to the very words. Obama, eager to show that he was neither a neophyte nor soft on defense, talked about embracing those technologies that were “proven and cost-effective.”
Nine months into his presidency, Obama has begun to describe what that means. He is not abandoning the two anti-missile bases built on U.S. soil in the Bush years, one in Alaska and one in California. But his aides – led by the one veteran of the Cold War in his Cabinet, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates – argued Thursday that Iran and North Korea were taking far longer to develop intercontinental missiles than many feared a decade ago.
The urgency, they argued, lies in addressing a more imminent threat: Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles.
First among those weapons is the Shahab III, the missile that can reach Israel and parts of Europe. It is also the missile that U.S., Israeli and European intelligence services have charged that Iran hopes to fit with a nuclear warhead. Iran denies that but has refused to answer questions from international inspectors about documents that appear to link the missile program to its nuclear efforts.