By William Pfaff
One might hope that when President Barack Obama misspoke in front of an open microphone at the Seoul nuclear security conference on Tuesday, he knew he would draw attention to the need to end what has always seemed to be one of the biggest policy frauds of the present day: the scheme purporting to defend Europe and the United States from Iranian nuclear missiles.
The president said to the departing Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, that he could not discuss the issue until the U.S. presidential election is over. He said the distraction and pressures of the race make it impossible to search for a compromise on this issue—which is pretty obvious. The best “compromise,” as he may understand, would be to drop the project as useless and a waste.
Obama had already told the press in Seoul that “the only way I get this stuff done is if I am consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.”
Medvedev repled, “I understand. I will transfer this information to Vladimir [Putin: Russia’s former and future president].”
Hearing of this secret confiding of such a message to the highest Russian authorities, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, with deep concern for America’s national security, that it was “an alarming and troubling development” that an American president would confide in his Russian counterpart that, in the mist of a presidential campaign, he can’t get around to missile defenses.
Romney might have added, “meaningless missile defenses,” since this has from the start been the salient characteristic of this project, so far as the American taxpayer is concerned, and it has been a Republican boondoggle from the start.
Since there currently are no Iranian strategic nuclear missiles, no Iranian nuclear weapons to put on them, and no conceivable advantage to be gained by Iran in destroying parts of Europe with nuclear blasts (and, without strategic missiles able to reach the United States, no way to turn American cities into nuclear rubble)—and since, if Iran even tried to do any of these things, its own cities would quickly become radioactive ruin, it seems fair to say that the importance of this threat to the West is nil.
European missile defense against the threat of hypothetical Iranian nuclear missile attack is a make-work project for the American aerospace industry and always has been.
Israel has more cause than Europe to worry about missiles, but these are short- or middle-range and are not nuclear. Periodically these fall on Israeli frontier territory, fired by Palestinian militants. The Israelis tell us that Israel is now much safer; it has an “iron dome” missile defense to fend off the missiles, or at least some of them. They have deployed the iron dome against the threat from Gaza. It has worked well enough for Israel now to demand funds from the United States to build hundreds or thousands of such iron domes. A sensible U.S. president (could it be Obama? ... probably not) would reply to them that peace with the Palestinians would be cheaper.
All of this goes back to the late Edward Teller, who rejoiced in the title of “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” It was early in the Ronald Reagan era that I happened to be in Berkeley, Calif., and was invited to an “important” lecture by Teller. I went, and while there were many hints and allusions to secret matters that we, the audience, were unqualified to know about (but would be dazzled by them if we did know), it was clear that he was telling us that he knew how to defend America against nuclear missiles.
Later he gave the same talk without the winks and hints to Reagan, who was enthusiastic and told Teller to go ahead. The first version of the idea that Teller offered, as I understood at the time, was to set off vast thermonuclear explosions in space where hostile missiles would have to travel, and the explosions would blow up the missiles. There was a problem in what this would do to the atmosphere and to those living underneath the explosions, I believe, but ever since then, work on “Star Wars” has continued in the aerospace labs and factories with little to show for it.
However, it kept a lot of physicists employed, and some of them now have come up with the iron dome. (What is there about the titles Israelis bestow on their military projects and campaigns? “Cast lead”—what was that supposed to mean? American operational code names are vainglorious and sappy—“Enduring Freedom,” “Everlasting Peace,” etc. Whatever happened to the stolid realism of the old brown-shoe army with Operations “Anvil,” “Torch,” “Overlord” and “Dynamo”?
Back to the subject. The European nuclear shield against Iran was pretty obviously intended by the G.W. Bush administration to be the basis of a future threat to Russia (just as the Russians recognized). What to do with it now? Can it be turned into something useful and unthreatening? Could it quietly be dismantled?
Probably not. That is what Presidents Obama and Putin have to talk about.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
White House / Pete Souza
President Obama shares a toast with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev in a 2010 meeting. The two men recently raised eyebrows with a frank exchange that was captured by an open mic.