Obama’s missile gap

Russia didn’t waste any time in putting President-elect Barack Obama on notice. A day after the election, President Dmitry Medvedev renewed Russian warnings that he would base short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, on the border of Poland, if the U.S. proceeds with plans to base a missile defense system in Europe, with the hardware in Poland and the Czech Republic. And this week, the Kremlin rejected new proposals put forward by the Bush administration to assuage concerns that the system could be used to neutralize Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

U.S. missile defense hawks responded that Medvedev’s threat, coming on the heels of Russia’s war with U.S.-allied Georgia, makes it essential for Obama to prove his mettle against an emboldened Kremlin and press ahead with a system to protect Europe and the United States against long-range missiles from Iran.

Obama should not react to the rhetoric from either quarter, but he should reconsider missile defense on its merits -- or lack thereof. The president-elect rightly is skeptical of the defense shield, given that it doesn’t yet work and it’s intended to defend against nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles that don’t yet exist. Although Iran has tested long-range missiles that could reach southern Europe, some security analysts believe the country is merely saber-rattling, because an Iranian attack on Europe, or even Israel, would be met with such force as to be suicidal. Meanwhile, the proposed missile shield has driven an unnecessary wedge between Moscow and much of the rest of Europe.

Even before Medvedev’s comments, there was no guarantee Obama would continue on the missile shield track. Congress has yet to fund it, with cost estimates ranging from $4 billion to $10 billion a year for five years, and Obama may not have the money in the midst of an economic crisis.

One of Obama’s senior defense advisors is former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, who has criticized the Bush administration for increasing tensions with Russia by backing NATO membership for Poland and Ukraine, on Russia’s border. This, and the defense shield, have fueled Russia’s fears that the United States means to surround it, spy on it and eliminate its nuclear deterrent. Nunn, among other Democrats, wants Washington and Moscow to negotiate nuclear disarmament, not waste time on a tiff over a missile shield.

Obama must engage Russia on many fronts, not fan its fears. For example, he needs Russia to fully support economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. And because Russia doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran any more than the United States and Europe do, there’s a good chance the Kremlin can be brought on board -- perhaps even in exchange for scrapping the missile shield program.