Analysis: Clinton's hard bargain

March 8, 2009 3:11:22 PM PDT
If the Obama administration intends to give up missile defense in Europe as part of a security deal with Russia, as its behind-the-scenes maneuvering seems to suggest, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is driving a hard bargain. On a trip to Europe and the Middle East that ended Sunday, Clinton spoke positively of the prospect of making Europe-based missile defense an integral part of an overall U.S. defense strategy. Her message was that missile defense has value and Washington won't give it up easily.

The uncertain status of missile defense has much to do with the administration's evolving approach to Iran. Its nuclear program and missile-building efforts are the main reasons usually cited to justify missile defenses in Europe.

Clinton made it clear that the U.S. wants more than just a helping hand from Russia. The U.S. wants to see any such assistance pay concrete and dividends in the form of verifiable action by Tehran to halt its nuclear program and scale back missile development. Until those results are achieved, or at least within sight, the administration is likely to keep missile defense as an option.

Talk of a bargain that would remove the missile defense irritant from the U.S.-Russian relationship has centered on a letter President Barack Obama sent Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in February. The note has been interpreted by some as a conciliatory gesture and a possible first step toward linking missile defense in Europe to Russia's assistance on Iran.

It is not clear how the Russians will respond, and Clinton's talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday yielded no answer.

Missile defense was a favorite of the Bush administration, but it never has been popular among Democrats. Obama's election was seen widely as signaling a death knell for the proposed European leg of the missile defense system, which would be linked to an existing network of interceptors in Alaska and California and radars elsewhere. Scaling back missile defense ambitions also could produce some of the big savings Obama seeks in a period of tighter budgets.

What seems apparent at this point is that the administration does not intend to bargain away missile defense entirely in exchange for Russian help with Tehran.

In Belgium, at a news conference following a NATO meeting, Clinton said missile defense was "a very important tool in our defensive arsenal for the future." She later said she was referring not just to Iran but more broadly to the concept of deterring non-state adversaries such as terrorist networks from seeking to acquire a nuclear missile years or decades from now.

At another point during her trip, Clinton said "Iran is the name we put to" those emerging and future threats, "but it is a kind of stand-in for the range of threats we foresee." If the present challenge of dissuading Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons proved successful, she seemed to suggest, then missile defense still might be useful because other missile threats might come up later.

What she avoided was offering a quid pro quo. Clinton was careful not to assert that if Russia were to accelerate pressure on Tehran to back down, then the U.S. would scrap its plan to put anti-missile interceptors in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic.

In fact she appeared to suggest that a missile defense in Europe was a good idea even if Iran no longer was a worry - although it would be less urgent.

Such talk may reflect doubt that Iran will change course, although Clinton reaffirmed during the trip that the U.S. wants to engage Iran in talks about its nuclear program and other topics.

She told an Arab diplomat at an international conference in Egypt last Monday that she doubts the Iranians will take up the American offer of a dialogue, according to a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified because the conversation was private.

Officially, the administration has not said whether it intends to go ahead with the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. It has stuck to the language that Obama used as candidate, that missile defense must be proved reliable and cost effective.

Poland's president said Sunday he believes the U.S. will honor its agreement to build a missile defense base in his country and that scrapping the project to improve ties with Russia would be an unfriendly gesture toward Poland.

One possibility is that Washington and Moscow could move toward agreement, with NATO, to jointly reconfigure current U.S. plans in a way that results in a coordinated system to provide protection of the continent against a range of missiles.

Russia says missile defense in Europe is unnecessary and provocative. Moscow even has threatened to deploy short-range missiles in its westernmost region, bordering Poland, if the U.S. goes ahead. But the rhetoric has since cooled.