Yesterday President Obama announced that he is scrapping the Bush administration's plans for a land-based missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He's opting instead to focus on a defense system that would intercept shorter-range missiles from Iran. This move has upset Poland and the Czech Republic, but pleased Russia, who was against Bush's plan. Is this an intelligent decision based on new information about Iran's weapons? Or will it empower Russia and Iran at the expense of American allies? We speak to former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who served under President Bush, and to Alexander Cooley, professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy at Barnard College. (Click through for a full interview transcript.)
John Hockenberry, for The Takeaway: We’re back now with Alexander Cooley, Professor of International Relations and foreign policy at Barnard College at Columbia University and we welcome back to the program Ambassador John Bolton. Former Ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 – December 2006. He’s currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Ambassador Bolton let me just begin with you. I just want to get clearly from both of you your position on this decision by the Obama administration and then I want you to have at it. You are opposed or supportive of this decision Ambassador Bolton?
John Bolton, Senior Fellow at American Enterprise Institute: Well I think it’s a catastrophic decision because it exposes the United States to the risk of Iranian long-range missiles. There was never any issue that Iran has a long-range missile capability today. It takes time to build these sites and this was being constructed, or would have been constructed against the risk of an Iranian threat some years down the road. So in a way, what happened yesterday was a lot of card shuffling by the administration and it’s a decision which is going to have profoundly negative consequences for our allies in Central and Eastern Europe and it will have profoundly negative consequences in the pacific as well. Like Japan and South Korea will ask what our commitment to them is.
HOCKENBERRY: I certainly want you to elaborate on that. Ambassador Bolton - card shuffling and a catastrophic decision. That’s his position. Alexander Cooley? Would you say this is a catastrophic decision or are you more supportive?
Prof. Alexander Cooley, Professor of International Relations and foreign policy at Barnard College at Columbia University : On balance, I would say this is a very good decision. First of all, the missile defense system was unproven in terms of its capability against a threat that had not yet materialized in terms of Iranian ICBMs. As the decision made clear, the focus now will be on countering short and medium range missiles that the Iranians are developing. And this system will do that sooner and more effectively. So, in terms of dealing with the potential threat from Iran, this reconfiguration of the system is much more on target than the previous version.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, let’s break it down into two pieces: there’s an Iranian component to this, Ambassador Bolton, and a Russian component. Does this enhance our clout with the Russians in your view Ambassador Bolton?
BOLTON: Of course not. The Russians are going to pocket this concession and wait for the next one. That’s the way they negotiate. The whole argument that the Polish and Czech sites somehow threaten them has been bogus from the beginning and they’ve known it. They’ve used it for their internal purposes. Those sites were directed against threats to the United States emanating from the Middle East. They have no capacity to constrain a putative Russian attack on the United States. And if you don’t believe that, look at a globe. Russian missiles come over the North Pole. Radars and missiles sighted in Eastern Europe would always be chasing the incoming Russian missiles - exactly the wrong way to do it. So this whole idea that cancelling these sites somehow helps press the reset button with Russia is totally naïve.
HOCKENBERRY: Professor Cooley?
COOLEY: Well, Russian analysts were never convinced that the missile defense system would stay at the ten interceptors as presently configured, right? They thought this would be used in the future to expand capabilities to be able to actually target Russian missiles. Now, at the present that did seem like an unfounded threat. But the bigger issue here is that our particular national interests are tied into a number of arms controls treaties, and this will allow us to successfully conclude the post-START treaty with Russia.
HOCKENBERRY: So you say this gives us more credibility in those ongoing arms control talks, Professor Cooley?
COOLEY: I absolutely think it does. Also, this actually...
HOCKENBERRY: Well let’s get a comment from Ambassador Bolton on that. Do you think it helps us with current discussions on arms control?
BOLTON: Here’s the way this discussion with the Russians is going to go. We’ll say, “We give up missiles defense in Poland and Czechoslovakia and in exchange we’ll reduce our nuclear capabilities even further.” The Russians will graciously say “We accept.” This is an unambiguous win for the Russians.
HOCKENBERRY: Is it one-sided, Professor Cooley? I mean, what are the Russians likely to offer here?
COOLEY: Absolutely not. First of all we’re doing this because it’s in our own national interest to do this, right? So all these demands for a linkage to Iran or some sort of issue miss the point here, which is that we’re reconfiguring this away from a Cold War system, an ideologically-based system to counter threats that are much more 21st century based. The other thing that we gain from this is that we place this new system within the NATO framework, within the NATO context. One of the things that cost us so much political capital with the missile defense system is that we went around the backs of our NATO allies and cut these separate deals with the Czechs and with the Poles, which actually were ever increasingly unpopular in these countries. This is going to allow us to reconfigure the new system, place it within a much more secure alliance type of framework and this is why NATO secretary general Rassmussen was broadly supportive of this yesterday.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, hold on one second. Here’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates talking about the other component of this entire debate and that’s whether there is realistic threat from Iran.
Robert Gates [on tape]: The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran’s short and medium range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab 3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected.
HOCKENBERRY: Ambassador Bolton, are the ship-based and existing sort of missile interceptor technology that President Obama spoke about yesterday capable of dealing with that threat that Secretary Gates spoke about?
BOLTON: Yes, and in fact the deployment of these resources was under planning during the Bush administration. There’s nothing new about this. The difference is the sea and land-based assets the President was talking about will help defend Western Europe. The ground based system in Poland and Czech Republic was to defend the United States. So I’m sure the Europeans are happy that we’re going to provide better defenses for them. That’s great and I think it’s appropriate we should do it. But the loss here is the loss in defensive capabilities for the United States. And let me say, yesterday administration officials briefed Congressional offices on this and conceded they had no new intelligence and that this intelligence assessment had been done in the early administration at the administration’s direction, reflecting the fact that the President, the Vice President, have never had faith in national missile defense capabilities. So I think this assessment is just as flawed as the December 2007 estimates that concluded Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons design.
HOCKENBERRY: Professor Cooley, are we, as Ambassador Bolton suggests, more vulnerable with this decision and secondly is it simply a continuation of what was going on during the Bush administration?
COOLEY: No, I think quite the opposite. I think we are using this decision to configure our posture to more realistic threats. That the system is going to be more flexible, more adaptive for the future. We can make more mid-stream adjustments. And that simply we are going to be replacing something that is realistic... offering something that is realistic and replacing something that was unproven and cost us a whole lot of political capital.
HOCKENBERRY: How are we less vulnerable if, as Ambassador Bolton said, we’ve taken off the table a defensive system that was for the US, not for something against Iran?
COOLEY: First of all, we still have interceptors that can be based in Alaska and California. Right?
BOLTON: Can I just interrupt here, and I’m sorry to do this, those interceptors are useful against North Korea, they have nothing whatever to do with threats from Iran or the middle east. Nothing.
COOLEY: Uh...future ICBM threats, that we are now saying are not likely in a main delivery system for Iranian missiles, right?
BOLTON: You know, that just does not reflect Iranian technology. They have within the past two months launched an earth satellite, they have successfully tested an advanced medium range two-stage missile, they have increasingly moved to solid fuel based rockets which permit very easy scaling up to ICBM range. And I want to say again, because I think this is important, there was never an argument that the Iranian threat existed today. We are projecting against a threat in a couple of years. And if that threat comes true, there’s no light switch you can turn on to say “oh well let’s have those Polish and Czech sites back.”
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, Alexander Cooley, a final thought before we go?
COOLEY: Yes, I mean the old system also was not necessarily located in the optimal way to deal with Iranian systems. Having interceptors in Poland, radar systems in Czech Republic actually left a lot of gaps in allies near Iran including Turkey. So I think the reconfigured system is much more effective.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, you’re getting a sense of what the debate is going to be over the consequences of this decision by the Barack Obama administration. Ambassador John Bolton, thanks for being with us. He’s the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" and Alexander Cooley is Professor of International Relations and foreign policy at Barnard College at Columbia University. He’s the author of “Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas”