Reports of Russia lobbing SS-21 ballistic missiles at Georgia only underlined what missile defense supporters took from Iran's series of missile tests earlier this summer: there is a missile threat, and the United States missile defense system is the best way to handle it.
They are wrong on both counts. But with the United States having finally worked out agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland to host parts of the system, the wheels have been set in motion for a huge U.S. foreign policy blunder that could have long-term and grave consequences.
After months of delays, the United States and the Czech Republic signed an accord in July that allows for deployment of American radar in the Czech Republic as part of the U.S. plan for establishing a European missile defense site. A secondary accord followed two months later that establishes the legal status of U.S. troops on Czech territory. Both accords must now be approved by the Czech parliament, something that is questionable since well over two-thirds of the Czech population opposes them. In fact, the antipathy of the Czechs toward missile defense cooperation is so strong that it has sparked the biggest activist campaign since the time of Vaclav Havel.
Prolonging its talks with the Czech Republic, the United States has been courting Poland for the past year and a half to host 10 missile defense interceptors. The Poles, feeling unappreciated for their support in Iraq and worried about Russia's response, insisted on expensive increases to their air defense systems if the interceptors were to be fielded on their territory. This stalemate held until Russian tanks rolled into Georgia. Within days, the Polish missile defense negotiator had been fired and a deal was struck where the United States agreed to field one Patriot battery in Poland and to come to Poland's aid should there be any advances on its territory. This agreement will soon be presented to Poland's legislature.
The nearly $6 billion scheme had its funding cut in earlier budgets by a Congress dubious about its necessity or merit. So supporters latched onto the Iranian missile tests this past July as validation for the program. According to Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, these tests "demonstrate the need for effective missile defense now and in the future, and this includes missile defense in Europe as is planned with the Czech Republic and Poland."
Ironically, these missile tests by Iran reportedly included the Shahab-3, a ballistic missile that would at best reach areas that would not be shielded by the theoretical umbrella of the European missile defense site.
Of course, that assumes that Iran would wish to attack Europe with ballistic missiles, an idea that stretches the imagination.
Iran does not currently possess, nor is expected to have for the better part of a decade (if then), missiles that could reach the United States.
Russian officials have long been worried that the U.S. system was actually aimed at them, and the rhetoric surrounding the Polish agreement does nothing to qualm their fears.
The Russians are right. This missile defense system in Europe is geared toward them, but not in the way that they think. Those interceptors that the United States wants to install in Poland don't exist and, if they did, they could not defend against the number or caliber of missiles in Russia's arsenal. The Patriot battery that the United States has agreed to send to Poland is nothing more than a stop-gap measure to make the Poles feel better.
From a political standpoint, though, the planned U.S. missile defense system in Europe is much more powerful. It is a symbol of American military might in eastern Europe, a sign that is meant for Russia.
Going ahead with the U.S. missile defense plans for the Czech Republic and Poland at a time when American-Russian relations are at their post-Cold War nadir will only wound them further. And it is all being done in the name of weapons that don't work against a threat that doesn't exist.
Victoria Samson is a senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that focuses on military and security issues.