A New Nuclear-Arms Race

Wall Street Journal
September 17, 2009

by Jack David, Melanie Kirkpatrick

Call it a shot heard round the world. The Obama Administration’s announcement yesterday that it is abandoning a Bush-era plan for a missile-defense system in Europe is not just about Europe. It also makes Americans more vulnerable and the U.S. a less reliable ally. Moreover, it will likely go down in history as the start of a new nuclear arms race, with increased proliferation and more countries going nuclear.

It’s often forgotten that the now-dead system, which would have placed interceptor missiles in Poland and a powerful X-band radar in the Czech Republic, was also intended to provide an additional layer of defense for the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. from long-range Iranian missiles. Iran already has numerous short- and medium-range missiles, courtesy of its close collaboration with its North Korean ally. It is working on developing a long-range capability, which Pyongyang already has.

The U.S. is protected from the North Korean threat by a series of ground-based interceptors based in Alaska and California. But New York and Washington are a long way from Alaska and California, and the “third site,” as the European system was known, was designed in part to provide an additional layer of defense for the American East Coast.

The “smarter” missile-defense system that President Obama announced yesterday won’t replace that capability. The mobile and sea-based system could help protect Berlin and Paris from short-range or medium-range missiles, but it won’t protect New York from an ICBM. The administration’s plan is a blow to the security architecture that protects the American homeland.

The administration’s move also signals U.S. friends and allies whose own security architectures heretofore relied heavily on the existence of U.S. support that they should re-evaluate the continuing validity of such reliance.

They will be skeptical of longstanding U.S. assurances and Mr. Obama’s future promises and explanations.

None will be more skeptical than the 30 countries that the U.S. has encouraged to forego the development of nuclear weapons by promising protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If the U.S. walks away from its missile defense commitments so easily, the promises that its nuclear deterrent affords are plainly diminished.

Consider the unanimous finding of a recent bipartisan congressional commission on the U.S. nuclear posture, led by former secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger. The commission warned of a coming “tipping point” in proliferation, when more nations might decide to go nuclear if U.S. allies lose confidence in Washington’s ability to protect them.

Start with Japan. Tokyo has the nuclear materials and technological prowess to develop its own nuclear deterrent in a matter of months, if not weeks. It has refrained from doing so because it has relied on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for protection. The importance to Japan of the U.S. nuclear umbrella was evidenced only last week at a meeting of the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation. According to Kyodo News Service, Japan referred explicitly to its concerns about weakening the U.S. nuclear umbrella as the basis for refusing to agree to a proposal that urges the U.S, to limit the role of its nuclear weapons.
In 2002, Japanese political leader Ichiro Ozawa, then in opposition, said that it would be “easy” for Japan to make nuclear warheads and that it already possessed enough plutonium to make several thousand weapons—a statement that was widely read as an indirect way of saying that Japan ought to have its own nuclear deterrent. Mr. Ozawa is now the secretary-general of the Liberal Party, which took office on Tuesday.

Continue with U.S. friends and allies in the Middle East. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have long been concerned with Iran’s headlong rush to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. They, too, have refrained from developing weapons—even though they are not formally under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella. And it would not be a stretch to imagine Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan should it decide they are necessary to thwart the Iranian nuclear intimidation Saudi Arabia expects to confront once Iran has a weapon.

Israel also will take notice of Mr. Obama’s retreat from defending against the Iranian nuclear threat and from its commitments to the Czech Republic and Poland. Israel may already have entertained the possibility that Mr. Obama soon will also announce that he can live with a nuclear-armed Iran. But even if it’s an incremental change in Israeli thinking, it is important, as Iran’s imminent elevation to nuclear-power status is an existential threat for Israel. And it is imminent. Based on a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Association, some experts have projected that Iran will have enough enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons by February. The Associated Press reported yesterday that senior officials at the IAEA agree that Iran already has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and is on the way to developing a missile system capable of carrying an atomic warhead.

Mr. Obama’s decision to kill the missile-defense system for Europe imperils the world because it adds to already mounting evidence that the U.S. president is weak and that the U.S. thereby can be intimidated into conforming to the will of less-benignly inspired actors on the international stage. It’s a capitulation to pressure from Russia, pressure born of Moscow’s openly stated objective to have its way in regard to all affairs of countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Obama’s decision is a setback for U.S. interests. It will imperil Americans, diminish security in Europe and the Middle East, reduce justification for Japan and other countries to abstain from obtaining their own nuclear deterrents. It will also encourage Iran to proceed with its program, encourage Russia in its increasingly aggressive behavior in Europe, encourage European countries to accede to Russian demands and further solidify Israel’s conclusion that it will have to deal with Iran on its own.

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