The Missile Defense Obsession

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 4, 2008; 1:56 PM

President Bush's obsession with missile defense was a distraction pre-9/11, is arguably an anachronism post-9/11, and has meant billions of dollars spent on unproven technology.

But no matter. Because Bush is on a roll. Yesterday, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, all 26 members of NATO endorsed his plan to build a controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

And signs are that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has denounced the proposal as unnecessary and provocative, may even go along with some version of Bush's plan when the two leaders meet on Sunday -- although it may only be a Potemkin agreement, aimed at buying time until the next U.S. administration.

Bush's History

When Bush first arrived at the White House, missile defense was at the top of his national security agenda.

According to former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, the intense focus on missile defense was a major reason that administration officials, and particularly then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, waved off his increasingly urgent warnings of an al- Qaeda attack in the weeks and months before 9/11. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Rice was supposedly scheduled to deliver a major speech designating missile defense as the cornerstone of Bush's new national security strategy.

In the post-9/11 world, of course, the primary threat of mass destruction comes not from a nuclear-armed rogue state, but from terrorists smuggling a weapon onto a cargo ship or across a border.

Nevertheless, Bush's enthusiasm for missile defense has never waned. Twenty five years after Ronald Reagan proposed what became known as the "Star Wars" program, Bush clearly wants to make it a key part of his legacy.

In October, Bush made a full-throated argument for the European missile shield at the National Defense University. (See my Oct. 24 column, Star Wars, the Sequel.) That's the same place where, in May 2001, he raised the specter of a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear ballistic missiles and described a "a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world."

The News

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's success in winning over once-skeptical European governments bolsters his position heading into talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has denounced the shield as the start of a new arms race. The alliance said the system should be expanded, with the participation of NATO countries and Russia, to protect all of Europe. . . .

"Missile defense represented Bush's biggest achievement at the three-day summit and a striking turnabout from the ambivalence Europeans harbored not long ago. Bush wants to build a sophisticated radar facility in the Czech Republic and station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as a hedge against Iran, which is developing ballistic missiles and enriching uranium that Western officials worry could eventually be used to build nuclear weapons.

"The Bush administration says the eastern location of Poland and the Czech Republic is ideal to allow early radar sighting of enemy missiles coming in from the Middle East and the launching of interceptors. Other analysts see politics also playing a role in the two countries' selection -- the new, former communist members are more supportive of the project than their Western neighbors and would be further anchored to the alliance by hosting the missile facilities."

The NATO communique states that: "Ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies' forces, territory and populations. Missile defence forms part of a broader response to counter this threat. We therefore recognise the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European based United States missile defence assets."

At a press briefing yesterday, national security adviser Stephen Hadley declared: "[T]here has been, over 10 years, a real debate as to whether there is a ballistic missile threat. And I think that debate ended today."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the NATO statement "a breakthrough document on missile defense for the Alliance. . . . I remember going to that first summit [in June 2001], when I think the President talked about missile defense, and perhaps only two allies gave even lukewarm support for the notion of missile defense. But now it is clearly understood in the Alliance that the challenges of the 21st century, the threats of the 21st century make it necessary to have missile defense that can defend the countries of Europe; that this is important to NATO, and we will take that work ahead."

Reuters reports: "Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he was encouraged that Washington had listened to Russian concerns about the planned U.S. missile shield site and said discussions would continue.

"The visit to Russia of the U.S. Defense Secretary (Robert Gates) and the U.S. Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice) showed that our U.S. partners are thinking about measures to improve confidence and transparency and that work will continue,' he said of their visit to Moscow last month. . . .

"Putin told reporters the missile shield would be discussed in more detail when U.S. President George W. Bush visits the Russian leader at his Black Sea vacation home in Sochi this weekend."

Julian Borger and Luke Harding write in the Guardian: "Russia has outlined a potential deal with the US to avert a crisis over Washington's planned missile defence system in Europe, ahead of a bilateral summit on Sunday.

"A senior Russian official said the deal, involving a string of safeguards to ensure the system could not be used against his country, would be a temporary measure to stop east-west tensions escalating. . . .

"A deal on missile defence, as part of a new 'strategic framework' due to be negotiated at Sunday's summit at the Russian resort of Sochi, would give both sides breathing room for further negotiations and draw some of the poison from US-Russian relations before Vladimir Putin steps down from the presidency on May 7."

Opinion Watch

John Tierney and Stephen Flynn wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed last month: "For 2009, the White House is requesting $12.3 billion to develop ballistic missile defense. This is on top of the more than $120 billion taxpayers have already spent since 1985 to develop a system that still has yet to be realistically tested and may never be operationally effective. . . .

"Only Great Britain, France, Russia, and China join the United States in having intercontinental missiles. The challenges facing other countries such as Iran who might want to join this club are, according to testimony from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, 'extraordinary.' There are many technical hurdles: creating a sophisticated propulsion system, a guidance system that is immune to jamming, a miniaturized nuclear bomb, a vehicle that can survive reentry into the earth's atmosphere, and the management to integrate and test all these systems together."

Rosa Brooks wrote in her Los Angeles Times opinion column yesterday: "In theory, missile defense is supposed to protect Europe from Iranian missile attacks. It's a dubious theory; there's no evidence that Iran has the capacity (or desire) to lob ballistic missiles at Europe. (There's also, alas, little evidence that our missile defense systems have the capacity to intercept incoming missiles)."

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in yesterday's Guardian: "Future historians will record that Europe owes much to George Bush. With patient, accomplished statecraft, they will note, he played midwife to a historic unification of eastern and western Europe. His handling of Russia was little short of masterly. At the same time, he built an impressive international coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein.

"I refer, of course, to Bush the father - George HW Bush. Pity about the son."

On missile defense, Ash wrote: "[T]he idea that you best defend yourself against a potentially nuclear-armed rogue state by doing a modernised version of what Ronald Reagan 20 years ago imagined you might do against the old nuclear-armed Soviet Union is about as intelligent as holding a large umbrella over your head while the floodwaters lap around your thighs and piranhas gnaw at your heels. Different times require different answers."

Anatole Kaletsky offers reason to look upon NATO and its plans with skepticism in his opinion column for the Times of London: "[W]hy shouldn't the Russians worry about Western armies and missiles moving ever closer to their borders? This contributes to a territorial encirclement very similar to what Napoleon and Hitler failed to achieve by cruder means. . . .

"Given that Russia is the only country in Europe (or in central Asia) that has been explicitly barred from Nato - and that will remain barred as long as Poland and the Baltic states are members - the only possible enemy implied by the alliance's 'defensive' posture must be Russia itself. Every defence policy statement from Central Europe makes perfectly clear that defence against Russia is the main raison d'être of Nato."

Revisiting Basra

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker report to Congress next week on Iraq's progress.

They'll likely try to sell the recent Basra offensive as a positive development, reflecting a strengthened central government. And, if reporters in Washington have been reading what their colleagues in Iraq have been writing, the big story of the testimony will be its lack of credibility.

Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Stephen Farrell wrote in yesterday's New York Times that U.S. forces and diplomats tried to salvage what they could from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "impulsive" offensive in Basra.

Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño write in The Washington Post this morning that Basra "exposed the shaky foundation upon which U.S. policy in Iraq rests after five years of war, according to politicians and analysts. . . .

"The offensive, which triggered clashes across southern Iraq and in Baghdad that left about 600 people dead, unveiled the weaknesses of Maliki's U.S.-backed government and his brash style of leadership. On many levels, the offensive strengthened the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"The United States has spent more than $22 billion to build up Iraq's security forces, but they were unable to quell the militias. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police deserted the fighting, a senior Iraqi military official said. Maliki had to call on U.S. and British commanders for support. In some areas, such as Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, U.S. forces took the lead in fighting the cleric's Mahdi Army militiamen.

"And it was Iran that helped broker an end to the clashes, enhancing its image and illustrating its influence over Iraq's political players. . . .

"Senior American officials put a positive face on the offensive and its aftermath. Crocker, in a briefing Thursday with journalists, said the Basra violence was not a setback for the United States in Iraq and did not 'erase the significant progress' in improving security in recent months. 'This is a positive development for Iraq,' he said, adding that Maliki had emerged stronger.

"But Crocker also acknowledged the tenuousness of recent reductions in violence more than a year after the launch of a temporary buildup of American troops. 'Gains are fragile,' he said. 'This episode demonstrates it.'"

Jonathan Steele writes in an opinion piece for the Guardian: "President Bush described last week's fighting as a 'positive moment in the development of a sovereign nation that is willing to take on elements that believe they are beyond the law'. In reality, it amounted to US support for the promotion of a Shia civil war. There are depressing similarities with US policy in Palestine, where the US is arming and financing Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement against Hamas instead of working for Palestinian unity."

Steele adds: "When Iraqi government forces became bogged down after the initial attacks, US officials were quick to brief American journalists that they had not been fully consulted in advance. . . . [I]t is hard to believe that the Iraqi army could have undertaken such a major offensive without American cooperation, since they needed American, and British, surveillance and air support.

"The most likely explanation is that the Americans approved the assault, confidently expecting it would succeed within a few days. The hardline US vice-president, Dick Cheney, was in Baghdad two weeks earlier and may well have urged Maliki to go ahead. They hoped for a triumph to boast about in Congress. Now they must explain a disaster."

Retired Lt. Gen. William Odom told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday: "The surge is prolonging instability, not creating the conditions for unity as the president claims. . . .

"[T]he decline in violence reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strong men who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs who follow a proliferating number of political bosses. . . .

"We are being asked by the president to believe that this shift of so much power and finance to so many local chieftains is the road to political centralization. He describes the process as building the state from the bottom up.

"I challenge you to press the administration's witnesses this week to explain this absurdity. Ask them to name a single historical case where power has been aggregated successfully from local strong men to a central government except through bloody violence leading to a single winner, most often a dictator."

The New NIE

Siobhan Gorman writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "A new, classified intelligence assessment about Iraq paints an improved picture of the conditions on the ground, according to officials familiar with the document, a conclusion that could boost the administration ahead of a series of congressional debates on the war.

"While officials wouldn't describe details, they described the report broadly as supporting the surge strategy advocated by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S.'s top military commander in Iraq. They said it focuses on improvements in the Iraqi government and in security on the ground."

As a result, "the report immediately prompted clashes between Democrats and the administration. Democrats say the report adds little more than what is already available in newspapers and that it appears to be designed largely to bolster the administration's Iraq policy."

Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "While the last assessment painted a grim picture of an Iraqi government paralyzed by sectarian strife, the new intelligence estimate cites slow but steady progress by Iraqi politicians on forging alliances between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, said the government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the document is classified.

"At the same time, officials said that the document detailed several factors that could reverse these trends: including a campaign of violence by Shiite splinter groups and the possibility that the government would not carry out a series of reconciliation laws Iraq's Parliament passed recently. Some Bush administration officials said that the report presented positive news, but they remained cautious about the future."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Several lawmakers familiar with its conclusions declined to provide specifics but said it contained little information beyond public accounts of recent events in Iraq. 'The stuff that was positive, they emphasized. The negative, they stated, but deemphasized,' said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). Biden chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was briefed on the intelligence estimate early this week."

The Abu Ghraib Memo

More fallout from what I'm calling the Abu Ghraib Memo.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It is must reading for anyone who still doubts whether the abuse of prisoners were rogue acts rather than calculated policy. . . .

"When the abuses at Abu Ghraib became public, we were told these were the depraved actions of a few soldiers. The Yoo memo makes it chillingly apparent that senior officials authorized unspeakable acts and went to great lengths to shield themselves from prosecution."

Tom Dickinson blogs for Rolling Stone: "The administration wanted to give itself the permission to commit felonies and war crimes. And it listed them. . . .

"This is premeditation of high crimes . . . forget misdemeanors."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann had law professor Jonathan Turley talk about the memo on his show last night.

Olbermann: "It was written for the Pentagon the month the U.S. invaded Iraq. A year after, the kind of torture that the memo authorizes comes to light in Iraq. Does that chain of sequence blow the administration's 'it was a few bad apples at Abu Ghraib' argument out of the water?"

Turley: "It does. . . . It destroys the idea that these were just hicks with sticks . . . What they were doing is strangely similar to what is laid out carefully in these memos."

Olbermann mentions the new Vanity Fair story suggesting that White House lawyers, including David S. Addington, gave interrogators at Guantanamo a "green light" for torture.

Turley: "Right. It is really amazing, because Congress, including the Democrats, have avoided any type of investigation into torture, because they do not want to deal with the fact that the president ordered war crimes. But evidence keeps on coming out. The only thing we don't have is a group picture with a detainee attached to electrical wires. Every time we see more evidence; we have more and more high ranking people at the scene of this crime.

"What you get from this is that this was a premeditated and carefully orchestrated torture program. Not torture, but a torture program."

Tom Teepen writes in his Austin American-Statesman opinion column: "In another era -- Nixon's, not so distant to those of us in Generation Ex -- a memo declassified just the other day would have been accounted a 'smoking gun' and the nation would have been abuzz with speculation about whose heads would roll and how far.

"Nowadays, ho hum."

Why Was It Classified?

Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy wrote on Wednesday that the government's ability to keep the memo secret for five years "exemplifies the political abuse of classification authority."

Now, Aftergood writes that J. William Leonard, the nation's top classification oversight official from 2002-2007, agrees with him.

"'The disappointment I feel with respect to the abuse of the classification system in this instance is profound,' said Mr. Leonard, who recently retired as director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which reports to the President on classification and declassification policy.

"'The document in question is purely a legal analysis,' he said, and it contains 'nothing which would justify classification.' . . .

"'There is no information contained in this document which gives an advantage to the enemy,' he said. 'The only possible rationale for making it secret was to keep it from the American people.'"

The Other Memo

Dan Eggen and Josh White write in The Washington Post with more about a still-secret memo mentioned in a footnote of the Abu Ghraib memo: "The Justice Department concluded in October 2001 that military operations combating terrorism inside the United States are not limited by Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . .

"The memo, sent on Oct. 23, 2001, to the Defense Department and the White House by the Office of Legal Counsel, focused on the rules governing any deployment of U.S. forces inside the country 'in the event of further large-scale terrorist activities' by al-Qaeda, a Justice Department official said yesterday.

"Administration officials declined to detail what domestic military operations were being contemplated at the time, and the legal status of the secret memo is now unclear. Although the memo has not been formally withdrawn, the Justice Department yesterday repudiated the idea that there are no constitutional limits to military searches and seizures in a time of war, saying it depends on 'the particular context and circumstances of the search,' according to a statement."

On the Wrong Track

David Leonhart and Marjorie Connelly write in the New York Times: "Americans are more dissatisfied with the country's direction than at any time since the New York Times/CBS News poll began asking about the subject in the early 1990s, according to the latest poll.

"In the poll, 81 percent of respondents said they believed 'things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track,' up from 69 percent a year ago and 35 percent in early 2002.

"Although the public mood has been darkening since the early days of the war in Iraq, it has taken a new turn for the worse in the last few months, as the economy has seemed to slip into recession. There is now nearly a national consensus that the country faces significant problems. . . .

"The unhappiness presents clear risks for Republicans in this year's elections, given the continued unpopularity of President Bush. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they approved of the job he was doing, a number that has barely changed since last summer."

The White House vs. the New York Times

It's war. In what may be the most hostile, personal and petty response to a news story about Bush, the White House yesterday sent out a memo entitled: "The New York Times Mistakes Its Own Blindness For Presidential 'Invisibility'; Apologist For Democrat-Led Congress' Inaction, Paper Criticizes President Bush For Public Unawareness Of Housing Event Old 'Gray Lady' Forgot She Failed To Cover."

The article in question, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, recounted how: "For a man who came into office as the nation's first M.B.A. president, Mr. Bush has sometimes seemed invisible during the housing and credit crunch. As the economy eclipses Iraq as the top issue on voters' minds, even some Republican allies of the president say Mr. Bush is being eclipsed and is in danger of looking out of touch."

Says the White House memo: "Today, the New York Times criticized President Bush for failing to generate headlines for his visit to Novadebt counseling center in Freehold, N.J. to meet with mortgage counselors and discuss the housing market. . . .

"The New York Times neglects to mention that it failed to send a reporter to cover the President's housing event in Freehold, N.J. -- a town inside its own circulation area. . . .

"Since August 2007, President Bush has appeared at public events where he has discussed issues pertaining to the economy or housing at least 28 times. . . .

"President Bush has repeatedly called on Congress to ensure the long-term health of our economy by making the tax relief that is now in place permanent."

The White House press office accuses the Times of bias, citing a 2004 study from the American Enterprise Institute that "the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, and New York Times tend to be the least likely to report positive news during Republican administrations."

And the worst sin of all: "The New York Times apparently missed last week's White House Fact Sheet listing the many actions President Bush and his Administration have taken to keep the economy growing and assist homeowners."

A Salute From Down Under

ABC News of Australia reports that Australian Prime Minister was caught on video saluting Bush at the NATO leaders' summit. "It was just a joke, according to the prime minister. But his political opponents are calling it a gaffe that belittles the country."

Cartoon Watch

Joel Pett on the diminishing president; Lee Judge on his economic plan; Jimmy Margulies on how he doesn't get it; Kal on the Bush-Putin friendship.

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