Special Report

No Offense

President Obama is determined to abandon the one government program that has already proved it works.

By 2.27.09

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I don't understand the point of exercising, which I'm told has something to do with health and wearing Umbros. Yet, as mystified as I am when watching Sweatin' to the Oldies 3 on VHS, I am not as confused as Barack Obama is when talking about missile defense, a topic much easier to comprehend than Richard Simmons. It's also more controversial.

President Obama knows that missile defense is a touchy subject internationally, as underscored by Russia's protests against the planned deployment of anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Within hours of Obama's election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to deploy missiles of his own in Kaliningrad, which borders Poland, if America goes ahead with its plans.

The administration, wavering, says it needs time to think it over, which is consistent with the "wait and see" approach that Obama espoused during the campaign. He said he will deploy missile defense (a) "only when the system works" and (b) only if it's "pragmatic and cost-effective." That sounds sensible enough.

Waiting and seeing are fine things to do, but a problem arises when the person doing the waiting keeps his eyes closed, as any restaurant manager will tell you. Obama is willing to wait on missile defense, but he refuses to look at the evidence in its favor. And so there is little reason to think he will backpedal on his campaign pledge to "cut investments in unproven missile defense systems."

Though far from flawless, missile defense is even further from "unproven." In December, the Missile Defense Agency successfully shot down a long-range ballistic missile that was launched in Alaska (roughly 3,000 kilometers away), in what was "the largest, most complex test we have ever done," according to Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the director of MDA. It was the 37th successful "hit-to-kill" intercept out of 47 attempts since 2001, proving that the shield is mightier than the sword (four times out of five).

Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, MDA's previous director, said, "Our testing has shown not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet."

Which is simply awesome. Even better, it's affordable. The system proposed for Eastern Europe is expected to cost $4 billion over seven years, a sum the Congressional Research Service called "relatively small in U.S. defense budget terms." In terms of Obama's domestic budget, it's microscopic.

Obama, who promised to increase foreign aid and to "treat allies with respect," should be absolutely giddy about missile defense. Its purpose, after all, is to prevent Europeans from getting blown up by ballistic missiles. That certainly sounds like aiding foreigners.

At least it does to our NATO allies, the same ones Obama claims to care about. On December 3, every last one of them signed a statement saying that missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic would make a "substantial contribution" to keeping them alive, roughly speaking.

Why in the world is Obama dithering?

His queasiness stems from a simple fact: He really wants to be popular, a goal he openly admits. He aspires to be "respected and admired abroad," seeing himself as the successor to Bono rather than to Bush.

How inconvenient to face controversy so soon. Missile defense is an unequivocal symbol of American supremacy, something that former superpowers tend to resent. Installing it in Eastern Europe, as Obama knows, would infuriate an already irritable Russia, and making Russians mad doesn't make them like you.

Obama, a sensitive guy by nature, is doing his best not to discomfit the Russians, whose inferiority complex is matched only by their paranoia. (A poll in 2007 found that 43% of Russians believe the U.S. seeks "the total destruction of Russia.") The essential point to keep in mind, however, is that this "controversial" weaponry -- a radar in the Czech Republic and ten missile interceptors in Poland -- is designed to hurt no one. The only thing it would hurt is Russia's feelings.

What disturbs Russia is not the anti-missile missiles themselves -- which everyone knows are no threat to its 850 ICBM's -- but the encroachment of American power into its former satellites. The Russians call it encirclement, but a better word is embarrassment.

Russia used to dominate Eastern Europe. Now, with NATO and American weapons systems moving eastward, the entire region (minus Belarus) has turned its back on Moscow, and Mother Russia is sick and tired of nobody looking at her.

Now, all of the sudden, here comes Obama, ready to stare and gaze indefinitely. It's all part of his wait-and-see strategy. "Let's talk it out" is his operating philosophy.

Like Obama, Vladimir and Dmitry want to talk until their mouths fall off, and why wouldn't they? When everyone talks, no one decides. An international talkathon, precisely because it will resolve nothing, serves Russia's interests as well as Obama's, ridding him of an awkward decision: protect American interests or flatter foreigners?

It's sweet that Obama wants to befriend nation-states, but geopolitics is not junior high, sadly, and chitchat isn't always cheap. The more time we spend blabbering for its own sake, the more time Iran has to continue its nuclear "research," right before it starts studying for its AP Biology exam. According to an IAEA report released last week, Iran possesses 460 more pounds of uranium than previously thought, giving it "enough atoms," per a senior U.N. official, to build at least one nuclear bomb. How comforting, then, that we will continue assuming the best intentions and worst capabilities of trigger-happy psychopaths.

As long as Iran keeps researching its way into the nuclear club, shouldn't America "research" its missile defenses over to Poland and the Czech Republic? Given who we're dealing with, it only makes sense to plan ahead for worst-case scenarios. If you knew O.J. Simpson had it out for you and was on his way to the safe where he keeps his revolver, wouldn't you take some precautions (such as running away or buying a bulletproof vest) rather than just trying to talk him out of owning a firearm?

To be sure, preemptive self-defense may offend the "international community," which raises an important question: So what? No one said being the world's policeman meant keeping 6.7 billion people in a good mood. That's what prescription drugs are for.

Prozac, however, is useless against ballistic missiles, and missile defense is quite naturally the best defense against them. The logistics are complex, but the issue isn't. Instead of agonizing over the impact it will have on his global reputation, President Obama should approach missile defense with the same attitude I take to physical fitness: Don't sweat it.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.