Star Wars Was Just a Movie

Okay, maybe you had to be in the middle of it, in the mid to late eighties, working out here in the aerospace industry, at the factory that pumped out military satellites and the odd payloads they carried, and bopping off to Washington to visit the in-laws now and then, and hanging around the Pentagon where the father-in-law was one of Reagan’s assistant secretaries of defense. Who knew Frank Carlucci was so short? It was an odd time, and looking back, knowing the folks who decided to ship nasty biological agents off to Saddam Hussein – someone we liked at the time, as Saddam hated Iran as much as we did – seems very odd now. But they were cool people, and to them, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. And they picked up the tab at lunch.

And it was a good time to be in aerospace. The government money was pouring in, and these were cost-plus contracts, where every change, requested or something we thought up, meant even more money. It drove the folks in configuration management crazy, tracking it all, and Leslie, the sweet young thing in program control administration, said she was getting used to just rounding this or that up to the next million dollars each week. It was easier for everyone. Times were flush back then, and every evening the sun sank into the Pacific – glorious from the steps of the small beach place, with a bit of good scotch.

And then Reagan got his Star Wars notion – a defense shield that would mean no missile of any kind from anywhere would make it to America. We could shoot them all down. All the engineering guys knew this was nonsense, but it was work, and an interesting challenge. It might be super-nifty lasers or smart rocks (really, but not rocks exactly). More money poured in. No one came up with anything that really worked, but the brainstorming sessions must have been amazing. Of course those sessions were highly classified, so that’s just a guess. But everyone in South Bay was happy – Hughes, TRW, Raytheon, Northrop and all the rest. Good times. But over at the Rand Corporation, in Santa Monica, someone must have been doing a study on how nuts this all was.

And nothing changes. Fade out, and fade in, to Thursday, September 17, 2009:

President Barack Obama on Thursday scrapped a Bush-era missile defense plan for Europe that Russia had bitterly opposed and offered what he said would be faster, more flexible defense systems to protect against Iran.

In a move that could spur fears of resurgent Kremlin influence, Obama said he had approved recommendations from U.S. military leaders to shift focus to defending against Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles.

“This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack,” Obama said, dropping plans of his White House predecessor George W. Bush for ground-based interceptors in Poland and a related radar site in the Czech Republic.

Under the new plan, the U.S. would initially deploy ships with missile interceptors and in a second phase would field land-based defense systems.

It seems that twenty-five years later the technology may be close to sort of working, in a limited way, on a small scale – amazing new sensors and massive computing power did the trick. But the large scale system is a bit iffy, and the smaller systems are what we know works now. This was good news for Lockheed Martin – the Pentagon’s top supplier – and Raytheon, the world’s largest missile manufacturer. They build the smaller stuff. Boeing took a hit – they’re the prime contractor for the canceled installation of ten massive two-stage ground-based interceptors in Poland. Damn. Lockheed Martin shares shot up 4.46 percent and Raytheon was up 3.36 percent. Boeing was up only one percent.

But this seemed to be about politics, not technology. We made Russian President Dmitry Medvedev one happy camper, removing an issue that had screwed up our efforts to enlist Russian support on Afghanistan, and on Iran, and on nuclear arms control. They had hated Bush’s putting big missiles next door. Was he trying to provoke them? Medvedev spoke on Russian national television. We can talk now.

The Bush-Cheney theory of winning the cooperation of other nations – poke them in the eye, provoke them, show the world they’re weak, insult them and then make them submit to your will – was not at play here. And critics accused the White House of precarious weakness:

Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008, blasted the move as “seriously misguided” and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a leading Bush-era hawk, was scathing.

“It’s just unambiguously a bad decision,” Bolton said. “Russia and Iran are the big winners. I just think it’s a bad day for American national security.”

The Bush administration had proposed the system amid concerns Iran was trying to develop nuclear warheads it could mount on long-range missiles and we backed down, just because those creepy Russians saw it as a threat to its own missile defenses and overall security. Iran must be laughing at us and Israel in despair, as we’ve abandoned them to Iran, or something. The general idea seemed to be that Obama was not only black, he was anti-Semitic, and of course week. Joe Lieberman was practically in tears.

The response was odd:

Outlining Obama’s new approach, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States would deploy Aegis-equipped ships with interceptors capable of shooting down ballistic missiles to defend both European allies and U.S. forces.

Gates said land-based defense systems would be fielded in a second phase starting in about 2015. “Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,” Gates said.

And interceptor missiles could still be stationed in Poland, and also in the Czech Republic – but just not the big ones, that may or may not work.

But there was this:

“The reported decision to scrap missile defense for Europe sounds dangerously like a policy of appeasement,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

But that’s not what happened. We didn’t scrap the concept, and the only one we abandoned was Boeing. We went with a proven more flexible system, and one that does the job better. And we did that without ticking off a nation we’d like to work with. You got a problem with that?

Over at the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman, tries to balance it all out:

In favor of abandonment:

1. Russia, a much more important country than either Poland or the Czech Republic, viewed it as needlessly provocative.

2. The thing was never actually built, so getting rid of the plans to build it is fairly cost-free.

3. The thing was more about Eastern European political fears of a resurgent Russia, which are better dealt with through diplomatic means.

4. Iran isn’t dreaming of raining missiles down on Prague or Gdansk.

5. Moving Patriot batteries into Poland is an adequate political substitute for Polish anxieties.

6: Oh, and there are alternative missile-defense systems like Aegis that would be used as a substitute in a couple of years; plus closer-to-Iran interceptors as well

In favor of continuation:

1. Iran might someday at some point acquire this missile capability and then decide what it wants to do is blackmail European countries into giving it all their gold coins.

2. Russia isn’t an important country and even if it were, the United States ought to cherish the memory of when it was cool to provoke it.

And he adds this:

Eric Edelman, the second Bush-administration undersecretary of defense for policy, tells The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Spiegel that he saw intelligence reports on the pace at which Iran is making technological progress on long-range missiles. But you know who sees more intelligence reports on those missiles? Edelman’s former boss, Defense Secretary Bob Gates. If Gates, the model of a pragmatic defense secretary who often discusses the need to reset defense policy around “real” and not “hypothetical” threats, doesn’t see an actual cost to U.S. or allied security, then none exists.

And Andrew Sullivan chimes in:

Like some exhausted volcano, the GOP is spewing the usual steam on appeasement of Russia. Personally, absent communism and global aspirations, I see no reason why Putin’s Russia should be an enemy of the US. In any dealing with Iran, Russia will be critical. And European policy was not what this move was really about, was it?

See Gates’ full explanation:

To say that the Obama administration was scrapping missile defense, Mr. Gates said, is “misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing.” He added that the new configuration “provides a better missile defense capability” than the one he had recommended to Mr. Bush.

Administration officials said the Bush missile defense architecture was better designed to counter potential long-range missiles by Iran, but recent tests and intelligence have indicated that Tehran is moving more rapidly toward developing short- and medium-range missiles. Mr. Obama’s advisers said their reconfigured system would be more aimed at that threat by stationing interceptor missiles closer to Iran.


So Obama and Gates are actually increasing the US’s missile defense of Israel from Iran. Why does no neocon see that? Or is their determination to destroy this presidency prior to their actual concern for Israel’s security?

Well, one neocon saw it, Thomas Nichols at National Review Online:

Despite the outcry that President Obama has sold out the Europeans and caved to the Russians by cancelling missile defenses in Europe, it was the right thing to do. Those defenses were not going to work (or work well enough or soon enough to matter in any major crisis with Iran), and the diplomatic price we were paying for them was far out of proportion to any small gains we might have made by annoying the Russians or reassuring the Czechs and the Poles.

And on the left, Matthew Yglesias argues this was a good call:

Bush’s idea was hugely expensive, and massively illogical. For one thing, Poland and the Czech Republic aren’t in any sense between Iran and Europe. Nor is Iran actually threatening Europe with any missiles. Which is why nobody in Europe particularly wanted this thing built. The exception was the Poles and Czechs themselves who liked the idea as a token of America’s commitment to defend them against Russia. Which is how we wound up in this situation, with an anti-Iranian missile shield in a place that doesn’t make sense as an anti-Iranian measure, but does piss off Russia.

But he notes that conservatives have decided that antagonizing the Russians “is a feature rather than a bug of the program.” Senator Jim DeMint says that this shows weakness and Michael Goldfarb at the center of everything neoconservative, the Weekly Standard, says it is nothing but vile appeasement.

Yglesias is not impressed:

This is another example of inane spite-based thinking in foreign policy. Basically the idea is that if the Russians don’t want us to do something, we have to do it because otherwise we’re appeasing them and next thing you know Vladimir Putin will be marching on Paris.

Common sense indicates the exact reverse. In general, you should avoid antagonizing other countries, and especially other major countries with which you have a complicated bilateral relationship. If you have some very good reason to want to do something that will antagonize Russia, then maybe you have to do it. But antagonizing them counts as a cost of the policy, not a benefit.

When you take a program with a huge financial cost and no real security benefit, and then add the “Russia will be mad” factor into the mix, the policy looks worse not better as a result.

Yeah, but fade out, and fade back in, to the eighties, and what Matt Duss sees as the start of the Reagan Cult of Missile Defense:

The cult of Reagan is a major force among American conservatives – especially in regard to foreign policy… and a dogmatic commitment to missile defense is one of its core tenets. As with so much else having to do with Reagan’s role in the Cold War, the extent to which the prospect of the U.S. deploying an effective missile defense caused the Soviet Union to collapse has been seriously blown out of proportion, having now become simply an article of faith for many of Reaganism’s adherents.

Reagan’s Star Wars idea was dopey, to an engineer, but the dumb-ass Russians didn’t know that, and thus Reagan ended the cold war – we won. That’s amusing. Isn’t it pretty to think so? Yglesias argues this is just “part of a broader conservative worldview that wants to lodge the United States in a lot of negative-sum conflicts and fails to see the possibility for positive-sum cooperation.” There’s a lot to think about there.

And for all the sputtering that we’ve abandoned the Noble Polish People, in September, the very month in 1939 when the Nazis rolled in, and the Czechs, after Neville Chamberlain sold them out so many years ago, doesn’t seem to match their reaction:

Polish and Czech leaders are insisting that ties with the United States would remain strong despite US President Barack Obama’s decision to shelve a missile shield plan in their countries. “I received President Obama’s words and declarations with great satisfaction,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Thursday after speaking with Obama by telephone.

Obama’s new project still offered “a chance to improve European security taking Poland into particular consideration,” he said, adding that his country stood “to gain an exclusive position.”

“I wouldn’t say it is a failure of Poland, I will also say that because where we are geographically, we’ll always have to work on our security,” Tusk added, underscoring his country’s proximity to Russia.

Talks with Washington, he said, “are bringing effects, different ones than were expected but ones beneficial to Poland.”

Czech President Vaclav Klaus also brushed off any concerns about the decision’s impact on relations with the United States. “This decision of the American government did not come as a surprise to those who closely followed the signals over recent months,” Klaus said in Prague.

“I’m 100 percent convinced that this decision of the American government does not signal a cooling of relations between the United States and the Czech Republic.”

Of course that item is from AFP – the Agence France-Presse. Do you trust them? You know the French.

Another view of this comes from Fred Kaplan at Slate, where he calls the move a remarkably shrewd bit of politics and statesmanship:

The decision, which he announced this morning after completing a six-month review of the program, removes the biggest obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations – a step that could clear the way for cooperative measures on a wide range of international issues – without scrapping the general idea of some sort of “missile shield” for Europe.

Look at the history of this:

Bush came up with the plan to put 10 anti-missile interceptors and radars on Czech and Polish soil in 2007, and the Russians have been clamoring about it ever since. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Bush of trying to upset the balance of power.

Bush’s top officials, including his (and now Obama’s) defense secretary, Robert Gates, tried to persuade Putin that such fears had no basis. The interceptors would be configured to shoot down missiles launched by Iran, not by Russia. And in any case, a mere 10 interceptors were hardly a counterweight to the thousands of offensive missiles in Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The argument was correct but also beside the point. The Russians were worried not so much about what 10 interceptors could do but rather about what they represented – a U.S. military foothold in the heart of Eastern Europe. …

Russia has long been nervous about the expansion of NATO into its former imperial realm. The prospect of a large, fixed military installation in this realm – not quite a nuclear weapon (the GBI carries a “kill vehicle” that smashes into its target rather than a nuclear warhead) but, still, a weapon related to the U.S. nuclear program – was going a step too far.

When Obama met with Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July, the missile-defense plan still rankled; the Russian leaders said that they liked the new American president’s words (the “reset button” and so forth), but they were still waiting for his deeds.

Obama’s announcement this morning constitutes a substantial deed.

So, contrary to a Wall Street Journal headline, Obama was not “scrapping missile defense in Europe.” He was adjusting the program:

Rather than building huge, fixed GBI complexes in Eastern Europe, he would buy more small, mobile SM-3 missiles and place them, initially, on the U.S. Navy’s Aegis cruisers.

At some point, no earlier than 2015, the SM-3s might also be deployed on ground bases in northern or southern Europe, “in consultation with allies,” Gates said, “starting with Poland and the Czech Republic.” (Notice: He didn’t say the anti-missile missiles might be based in those two countries – though that’s not out of the question – only that those countries would be the first consulted on the matter. A more likely base, if Iranian missiles are the concern, would be Turkey, though Gates didn’t say that, either.)

The SM-3s are capable of shooting down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, unlike the GBI, which is designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Obama and Gates said this morning that this feature is appropriate, since recent intelligence indicates that Iran is making faster progress on developing shorter-range missiles and much slower progress on ICBMs.

In other words, Gates claimed, Obama’s plan provides “a better missile-defense capability” for Europe – a plan that is more flexible, less vulnerable, and better suited to the actual threat than the plan that he himself advocated three years ago under President Bush.

Gates changed his mind. He saw the threats. He reviewed the technology as it now stands. He and the top brass were just being logical. And Obama gets what he wants:

Obama also clearly wants to revive relations with Russia – a goal that he and many of his advisers view as critical to the success of his broader policies to fight global terrorism and to curb nuclear proliferation. The plan to put missile defenses in Eastern Europe was seen by the Russians as a threat, an attitude that isn’t unreasonable from their point of view. It seems silly to throw a wrench in this relationship – and thus sharply reduce the chance of success in these vital areas – in order to preserve a missile-defense system that doesn’t seem likely to work anyway.

However, it is impolitic – it risks rousing accusations of being “soft on defense” or worse – for any president (or most senators and House members) to say out loud that missile defense isn’t likely to work and that, therefore, the program should be scrapped. (I’m not saying that Obama thinks this; I’m saying only that if he does think this, he couldn’t say it.)

Obama decided to be impolitic, for geopolitical reasons. Kaplan has only two questions now:

First, what will Obama do to provide special reassurances to the Czech Republic and Poland? To the extent that their people fear a resurgent Russia’s aggression (and, given the history, such fears aren’t out of line), those big, fixed GBI complexes would have been a tangible token of American commitment to their defense. The NATO treaty’s obligations are one thing, and hardly trivial, but the presence of a strategic asset, like a missile-defense complex, would guarantee full protection from – and therefore stand as a potent deterrent to – an attack or intimidation by Russia. …

The second question is more important: What will the Russians do now? They’ve cited the missile-defense plan as the main source of suspicion, the main obstacle to improved relations. Now that Obama has wiped it off the board, will Putin and Medvedev come around – or will they bring up some other reason, some other excuse, for remaining distant and occasionally hostile? It’s in the Kremlin’s court.

Well, that’s a gamble. But we have done so well poking them in the eye and insulting them.

And all this is very odd. More than twenty-five years ago, down in Manhattan Beach, all the young engineers were giggling about the crazy things they were being paid big bucks to figure out, knowing what they were being asked to do bordered on absurd. And we’re just beginning to figure out that they were.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Star Wars Was Just a Movie

  1. raymond mcinnis says:

    The Ed Show Archives
    September 18, 2009
    Rep. Sestak On Obama Changing Missile Defense Policy

    Joe Sestak, former naval officer, running in next primary against Arlen Specter, said last night on the Ed Schultz Show that not only will this move save costs — like a 50% reduction — but that it makes strategic sense as well. This level of geopolitical analysis is definitely out of my league, but Sestak’s evidence sounds pretty compelling. hope that the link works, its a video, but the url looks dicey.

  2. raymond mcinnis says:

    the righties/neocons won’t let this item pass without extracting the ultimate amount of resentment over it from their base, but once the news cycle dies down, i think that the evidence will undeniably prove that this policy by obama — to shelve the east european missile system — will pay dividends in several different ways.

    below is pasted most of juan cole’s comments from this morning:

    Obama Scraps Land Missile Shield in E. Europe, says Iranian Missile attacks can be Deterred by Sea

    President Barack Obama has scrapped an expensive ($56 bn so far) and probably useless “missile shield” program in the Czech Republic and Poland to which Russia had vehemently objected, and which had increasingly been described as aimed not at Russia but at Iran. In fact, the proposed ten anti-missile missiles in Poland the proposed radar station in the Czech Republic were part of wide-ranging push by Washington to encircle Russia while it was weak. Russia had indicated that the missile shield plan was an obstacle to further talks on nuclear disarmament.

    Instead, Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say that they will conduct missile defense from aircraft carriers at sea– that they haven’t given up on the principle, but are just doing it smarter. They are even cleverly turning the bizarre Iranian argument against its Republican inventors, pointing out that if the fear is really (wink, wink) Tehran, well it doesn’t have ICBMs or anything and the anti-missile batteries such as the Patriots on US naval vessels would be more effective.

    Aljazeera English has video:

    The so-called shield on land was causing a lot of trouble for no good reason. AFP notes, “Critics argued the system could not be proven to work, was focused on a non-existent threat from Iranian long-range hardware and needlessly angered Russia.”

    It is controversial among scientists whether missile defense is practical. I can’t imagine why in the world Iran would fire a missile at the Czech Republic or any other European country (Iran’s military budget is comparable to that of Norway or Singapore– it isn’t exactly a hulking behemoth stalking Europe). The US policy establishment has a long history of using euphemisms. Thus, Washington types often say “North Korea” when they actually mean China, because no one cares if they p.o. Pyongyang, but angering Beijing is unwise. Obviously, the Bush administration was talking about an Iranian strike on Europe as a symbolic way of speaking of a Russian attack.

    But despite White House denials, surely the cancellation of the system is mainly about Obama’s hope for a more positive engagement with Russia. The Afghanistan War lurks in the background; Russia’s willingness to allow NATO to transship materiel for Afghanistan by rail is crucial now that the Karachi-Khyber Pass route in Pakistan is problematic. If you fight a war in a landlocked country, you need the help of neighbors for logistics. In Afghanistan’s case, that means Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the first instance, and beyond Central Asia (itself landlocked), the Russian Federation. Fred Weir at CSM wonders if the cancellation will convince Russia to be more willing to see UN Security Council sanctions on Iran increased (personally, I doubt that).

    Aljazeera English discusses what Obama might get for the move from Russia:

    The rightwing squawkers at this move should explain how, practically, they would supply US troops if Russia were to turn hostile to such transshipment. The American Right is responsible for putting the US in this position of weakness by miring it in two Asian land wars and deregulating the economy into collapse. That they attack Obama for doing what is necessary to extricate us is mere posturing and hypocrisy.

    They should also explain why America’s closest allies– Britain, France and Germany– all greeted the decision with effusive praise and hopes that it would contribute to better relations with Russia.

    Still, the decision was received with dismay by some Polish and Czech politicians, who fear it will embolden Russian reassertion. (The Czech left, in contrast, was delighted). Again Aljazeerah English has a good reporet:

    Obama’s smart move is a form of social intelligence– he has reversed Bush’s cowboy go-it-alone-ism, and is creating the conditions for US ‘resource cumulation’– getting others to cooperate in achieving shared goals.

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