Despite Tough Talk, Bush Needs a Deal on Missile Defense

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PAUL BUCK/AFP

US President George W. Bush gives a speech

President Bush's missile shield will supposedly protect Americans from "rogue states." But the U.S. itself may be starting to look a little roguish on missile matters to a number of its traditional allies and adversaries. President Bush's announcement Thursday that "we will withdraw from the ABM treaty on our timetable at a time convenient to America," will not be welcomed by either the Russians or most NATO allies. It’s hardly surprising, considering that when it comes to pinpointing a guarantor of global stability, most countries prefer a treaty to a defensive weapons system.

Bush’s announcement appears calculated to sweat Russia into modifying the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, which currently forbids national missile defense systems. Washington and Moscow have been locked in debate over amending the treaty ever since Presidents Bush and Putin met in May, but despite pressure from the White House, the Russians remain firmly opposed to tampering with the ABM pact. By threatening to withdraw, President Bush is calling Moscow's bluff — in hopes of reaching some form of agreement before Putin comes to Texas in November.

Railroading the Europeans

That hardball strategy certainly worked with the Europeans — at least up to a point. Skepticism over the extent of the "rogue nation" threat and concerns that missile defense could spark a new arms race had most of Washington's NATO allies opposed to the scheme before the Bush administration took office. But when the U.S. made it clear it would forge ahead regardless of international opinion, the Europeans were pushed to begin debating not whether, but how a national missile defense system should be deployed. The Bush team clearly believes the same strategy will force the Russians to cut a deal, if for no other reason than that Moscow really has very few alternatives.

Moscow is no longer a superpower, and certainly has few strategic cards to play. But President Putin is no slouch at playing Russia's limited hand to maximum diplomatic advantage. And while Moscow's experts don't believe the comprehensive missile defense scheme envisaged by President Bush is technologically feasible to the point of neutralizing even the "rogue" threat, let alone Russia's own nuclear deterrent, the Russians’ skillful management of European concerns over treaties and a new arms race suggests they'll look to make maximum political and diplomatic gains from the controversy.

Putin's gambit

Long before Bush came into office, Putin had convinced much of Western Europe that missile defense was a dangerously misguided project, particularly because it would abrogate the ABM treaty that formed the cornerstone of all nuclear arms-control agreements between Washington and Moscow. And although President Bush managed to shift European thinking from whether to how the U.S. would deploy a missile defense system, the focus of that "how" was still fixed on treaties and international consensus. The reason the Bush administration is "consulting" Russia is that approval of missile defense — by constituencies ranging from European NATO members to the Senate Democrats — hinges upon getting Moscow's blessing.

Bush knows the level of support for missile defense, even in the U.S. Senate, might fall off appreciably if it meant abandoning the existing framework of arms-control between the two major nuclear powers and not replacing it with an updated set of treaties. And that gives Putin some room to maneuver.

Painted into a corner?

On the other hand, if Moscow knows that some form of U.S. missile defense is inevitable, it may have painted itself into a corner by sticking so resolutely to its guns on the ABM treaty. Putin may find it difficult to relent on the treaty now that he's dug in his heels — although his strategy for maximizing diplomatic gains seems to depend on taking these standoffs right down to the wire. (Of course Russia achieves some moral high ground if it forces Bush's hand, because by withdrawing from the treaty that girds nuclear arms control, the U.S. would deepen European antipathy for an administration already considered alarmingly unilateralist by many of its allies.) Holding out may also be based on the risky calculation that failure to achieve agreement might prompt Capitol Hill moderates to put the brakes on national missile defense.

But President Putin may be prepared to forego his claim to the moral high ground, in exchange for the political advantages of some new deal that could to restore a glimmer of Moscow's lapsed superpower status. And failing to negotiate the terms of a missile defense would also leave the U.S. free to pursue a more comprehensive shield than is currently envisioned, one that could hypothetically neutralize Russia's own deterrent. President Bush, too, may struggle to get the necessary support in Washington and Europe if he decides to walk away from the ABM without replacing it with a new set of agreements. Despite the tough talk, then, both sides maintain an overwhelming interest in cutting a deal.