Friday, November 21, 2008

Missile defence

A damp squib
Nov 20th 2008
From The Economist print edition

American missile-defence plans falter in eastern Europe

IRAN’S new medium-range missile, the Sajil, which was test-fired on November 12th, marks something of a technological breakthrough. It is fast and has a claimed range of 2,000km (1,250 miles). It might reach Moscow or southern Italy, say. Yet both Russia and Italy are opposed to American plans to place ten interceptor rockets in Poland and an anti-missile radar in the Czech Republic. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has criticised the plan because it “provoked” Russia. The Kremlin has threatened to put short-range Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave (or possibly in Belarus, a close ally) if the missile-defence deployment goes ahead.

Raising the temperature even higher, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president who (until the end of December) also presides over the European Union, said on November 14th that the American plan “does nothing to bring security and complicates things”. That infuriated his Polish and Czech counterparts, who noted that France signed up to a decision at the NATO summit in April in support of missile defence. They also questioned what business a French president had pronouncing on other countries’ security ties with America. Mr Sarkozy issued a partial retraction, saying merely that nobody should put new missiles in Europe pending talks with Russia about new security arrangements for the entire continent.

The incoming administration of Barack Obama seems unenthusiastic about missile defence as well. The president-elect says that he will support the programme “if it works”. That marks a big shift from the Bush administration’s policy, which is to deploy and develop in a “spiral” (meaning that bits would be deployed as and when they are ready).

All this leaves the Poles and Czechs who pushed for missile defence (against unenthusiastic public opinion) somewhat exposed. The Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, a strong supporter of the plan, claimed that Mr Obama had told him that missile defences would go ahead. But the Obama team issued a denial, leaving Mr Kaczynski, not for the first time, looking out of his depth. Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, who clinched the original deal with America, flew to Washington this week to sound out potential Obama administration appointees in more detail.

Poland is interested not only in the tacit American security guarantee that a missile-defence base implies (important if NATO’s value to Poland frays because of German ties with Russia). It also won promises of American help with Polish military modernisation and of a battery of advanced air-defence missiles to protect Warsaw. If the Obama administration freezes missile defence (quite easy, given congressional hostility to the programme), other parts of the deal will be in doubt.

That is more galling since public support in Poland for missile defences has risen from 27% at the start of August to 41% after the Georgian war, when Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state, came to sign the deal and toast it in Georgian wine. Some Poles feel, crossly, that Mr Sarkozy is speaking for Russia, not for them.

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