Late last month, a Polish newspaper revealed that the Barack Obama administration plans to discontinue the deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. In their place, the White House reportedly wants to build a modified, short-range version of the program in the Balkans or Turkey. This relocation, the administration assumes, will assuage Russian concerns while continuing to provide an effective defense against the threat of Iran's growing missile program. Proponents of such a move argue that the result will be increased Russian cooperation abroad, newfound favor with anti-shield Western European allies, and -- best of all -- freedom to divert U.S. attention from Europe's contentious east to bigger problems elsewhere.
If the administration is aware of the political costs of this new approach, it seems to think they will be limited to a minor abrasion in U.S.-Polish and U.S.-Czech relations -- to be cleared up easily with some careful PR and a consolation prize. After all, what are a few hurt feelings among two small allies compared with improved relations with Moscow? Isn't the prospect of a "reset" relationship with Russia worth the cost of U.S. disengagement from Central Europe in general and backpedaling on missile defense in particular?
Actually, no. These costs are very real, and they stretch well beyond PR to involve primary, long-term U.S. strategic interests. Consider just these four:
1. A destabilized eastern flank. Since the Russian invasion of Georgia, Central European countries have found themselves sitting on a reactivated strategic frontier. Missile defense assuages their predicament by providing visible evidence of U.S. security patronage-- evidence they would be less eager to obtain if NATO had created contingency plans for the region's defense in the 1990s. Scrapping the shield won't make the regional insecurity complex go away; it will simply manifest itself in louder demands for NATO territorial defense, increased regional defense spending, and access to advanced U.S. weapons systems -- all of which are just as likely to provoke Russian ire as missile defense.
2. A more contentious NATO. There is a widespread belief that a U.S. backtrack on missile defense would reduce friction within NATO by mollifying anti-shield members such as Germany. Actually, it will only divert Central European political energy into the pursuit of new and perhaps more controversial forms of reassurance. Imagine the German response to a Polish call for higher defense outlays or a Baltic request to move NATO bases eastward. In addition, the potential alternatives for the missile defense sites are limited and the administration's plan might require that facilities be constructed in countries, such as Germany, where public opinion is even more opposed to missile defense. The net effect is more, not less, tension in an already strained alliance.