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Anti-Missile Missiles and the Politics of Fear

by William Hartung

A key to capping or eliminating the Iranian nuclear program will be finding ways to assure Tehran that if it foregoes the nuclear option, it will not be vulnerable to attack.

September 19, 2009—President Obama's sensible decision to pull the plug on the Bush administration's plan put missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic has—predictably—drawn howls of protest from Republican critics who argue that it will leave the U.S. and its European allies exposed to an Iranian missile attack. While they're at it, they note that the decision somehow involves "abandoning" our Polish and Czech allies, as if the deployment of a missile defense program were the only way to cement relations with two countries that are, after all, already NATO allies covered by the U.S. defense umbrella. The details of the Obama administration's alternative approach matter, but of equal interest is whether the latest attempt by military hawks to play the "fear card" will get political traction.

What is there to be afraid of? As Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione has observed on, Iran is unlikely to master the technology for a medium- or long-range missile capable of reaching Europe or the United States for ten to fifteen years. Even if they reached that threshold it would be insane for any Iranian leader to use them, as the net result would be the obliteration of his own country. Cirincione's point is backed up by a recent study of the matter by the East-West Institute. Even this decidedly non-alarmist view assumes that Iran will move full speed ahead on nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs, a development which is by no means assured. In short, the "Iranian threat" to the United States and Europe that President Obama's critics are jumping up and down about may not arise for ten or fifteen years or longer, if ever.

Why does Iran want a nuclear capability in the first place? If there is any rationale other than showing it can master the technology—a point of national pride for some Iranians—it is as a deterrent against possible attacks from the United States, or Israel, or even (albeit much less likely) a resurgent Iraq. A key to capping or eliminating the Iranian nuclear program will be finding ways to assure Tehran that if it foregoes the nuclear option, it will not be vulnerable to attack.

In short, the key to blunting Iran's nuclear program is to lessen the fears on both sides, not to rattle sabers while trusting in a technological fix that is untested and probably unworkable in any case. The Obama administration's alternative approach—a willingness to at least talk to Iran about what it would take to curb its nuclear and missile programs—is a crucial step in the right direction.

Finally, in a point that is largely ignored by the "sky is falling" crowd, it is not as if the Obama administration has abandoned plans for any missile defenses in Europe. It has merely shifted gears towards a plan that would focus on the shorter-range missiles Iran has made progress on, rather than the long-range ones that may or may not ever be built. Whether or not this new missile defense plan is the best option, it is important to note that the President's critics are so wedded to ideology—rather than evidence—that they are pretending that the president's new approach doesn't even exist.

As we have seen in the case of the non-existent "death panels" that have dogged administration efforts to secure health care reform, a lie, if repeated often enough, can hijack the debate over even the most serious matter. So, even though the Obama administration has the facts on its side, it will be incumbent upon its supporters to make that clear early and often, in language that reduces fear rather than stoking it.

William Hartung is Director of the Arms and Security Initiative (ASI) at the New America Foundation. Prior to taking that position he was Director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York City.

This article was originally published by Talking Points Memo, and is published in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.

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This story was published on September 24, 2009.