Monday, April 23, 2007

The Bush Administration's Lazy Pessimism

I'm consistently disappointed with the Bush administration's strategic and proliferation policies, but because they are pessimistic. Everyone is entitled to see such issues from a different perspective. What I really dislike about Bush administration policy is that it is such a lazy pessimism.

Case in point, it came out in today's New York Times that the Bush administration as well aware of China's preparations to conduct its successful ASAT test back in January. This shouldn't be too surprising, considering how much the United States spends on national technical means and imagery analysis. I've pointed out before that the Bush administration has demonstrated a tendency to value enhancing national preminence over constrainting proliferators and would-be competitors.

There is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing the "all options on the table" approach to issues like missile defense and the weaponization of space. The problem is that the utility of such an approach declines significantly if don't pursue the options that would otherwise be taken off the table. Dr. J over at the Arms Control Wonk really captured this idea today:

The real argument is that the Bush Administration wanted to “maintain maximum flexibility.” The hoary appeal to “keeping our options open” drives me nuts—keeping some options open requires closing others. Adults recognize that they can never keep all the options open. Policy-making is about making choices.

After all, Chinese anti-satellite weapons will restrict US freedom of action in space, too, just as would a ban on certain military missions. That we chose not to pursue a ban—either because we thought it might fail to prevent China from acquiring ASATs, because we’d rather have certain military systems or for any other reason—is not keeping our options open, it’s choosing some options at the expense of others.

The negative impact of lazy pessimism apparently doesn't stop at the weaponization of space and nonproliferation. Fred Kaplan wrote a scathing profile in today's Slate detailing of how the Bush administration completely bungled plans to deploy midcourse interceptors in central Europe:

On the verge of signing a deal to place 10 anti-missile missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, the Bush administration is getting hammered on all sides. The European Union is furious that Bush is circumventing NATO and dividing the continent. Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, is calling the plan "a serious destabilizing factor which could have significant impact on regional and global security."

In response, the White House is pledging to discuss the terms with NATO and rushing to offer the Russians rewards if they drop their opposition.

"We were a little late to the game," the New York Times quotes a senior administration official. "We should have been out there making these arguments, making the case more forcefully before people began framing the debate for us."


Even Bush was pretty good at this game at the outset of his presidency. When he entered office in January 2001, his top priority was to build a missile-defense system. Doing so would involve withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the centerpiece of U.S.-Russian arms-control accords dating back 30 years. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to renounce the treaty from the get-go. But then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Bush to engage with the Russians and to calm their fears before taking such a dramatic step. So, Bush visited Putin in June. Powell initiated negotiations for what became the Moscow Treaty, which sharply reduced both sides' offensive nuclear arms. By the time Bush gave formal notice that he was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, on Dec. 13, Putin took the news with a shrug. He'd been persuaded that the move was not part of a renewed buildup against Russia. And there wasn't much he could do about it, anyway; his army had crumbled, his economy was a wreck.

Now, the geopolitical backdrop has shifted. Thanks to soaring oil prices, Russia's economy is booming, and its nationalist confidence is hardening. Its commercial ties with Iran have given Putin bargaining leverage over the West on a strategically vital issue. In short, if Bush wanted his cherished missile-defense plan to gain an easy entrée to Russia's backyard (or, to see it another way, the front yard of its former empire), he should have come "to the game" on time; he should have followed the standard playbook.


What the Russians really fear about this plan is the vast American presence that goes with it. The anti-missile interceptors—the same models as the ones now in Alaska—are gigantic, as big as the old intercontinental ballistic missiles and, like them, buried in substantial blast-hardened silos. To deploy 10 of them, along with a huge X-band radar system, will require an enormous military base, heavily staffed, apportioned with the usual complement of U.S. Air Force infrastructure and American amenities.

In short, the United States would be gaining a substantial foothold deep inside Eastern Europe, closer than ever to the Russian border.

The members of the European Union are upset for similar reasons. Just as the EU is nurturing its own integrated defense council, and as NATO is taking a commanding role in Afghanistan, here come the Americans—so it seems—negotiating a separate deal with the Czechs and Poles, splitting not only the European Union but also the continent.

I agree with all of Kaplan's points, but his characterization of the Moscow Treaty is a bit too generous. The treaty itself is a flimsy document with no verification mechanism and no requirement for warhead destruction. It also allows either side to pull out with only three months notice, instead of the traditional six and the treaty expires on the same day that it must be fully implemented.

In fact, the Russians practically had to twist the Bush administration's arm to get them to sign a legally binding agreement on strategic nuclear reductions. Arms Control Today picked John Bolton's brain about the matter back in 2002 when he was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security:

ACT: Secretary Powell said last week that he expects the United States and Russia to sign a legally binding accord to reduce the number of offensive strategic weapons that they deploy. In earlier months, the administration had suggested that it would prefer an informal agreement because Cold War-style treaties are unnecessary, given our new relationship with Russia. Why has the administration changed its mind?

Bolton: Well, I don’t think we have changed our mind. I think the point about not wanting Cold War-style treaties remains entirely valid, and the reason for that is that, in many respects, the way those treaties were negotiated reflected the geostrategic environment of the Cold War. That environment is now very much different, and our relationship with the Russian Federation is very much different. In those circumstances, you don’t want to be negotiating a kind of formal agreement that actually exacerbates diplomatic tensions as much as it might have the prospect of relieving them. So, the issue is looking for the right kind of agreement that reflects the new relationship, which could well take the form of a treaty or something other than a political declaration. We’re still in the process of deciding that. We’re having conversations with the Russians. We’ve told them for quite some time we’re open as to form. They have also said they’re open as to form. We’ll have to see how it works out.

ACT: What did Secretary Powell mean by “legally binding agreement”?

Bolton: Well, that would be something that could be a treaty, could be an executive agreement, might be something else that would embody the offensive weapons numbers.

ACT: Is there a preference for a treaty or an executive agreement on the U.S. side?

Bolton: At this point, we’re still open as to form. I’m sure as we get closer to May that decision will be made.

ACT: When we are speaking about a legally binding agreement, are we talking about the numbers of the warheads, are we talking about transparency, are we talking about verification? What exactly is the substance of this?

Bolton: Well, I think we’re still contemplating exactly what we mean by that—what the most appropriate format would be, how it would be structured, and that sort of thing. And I think that’s all part of the negotiating process.

I definitely recommend reading the rest of the interview, especially the part where Bolton gets into a verbal tussle with Wade Boese about the possibility of a 'resurgent' Russia.

I'm also going to track this down tomorrow at work, but I could have sworn that the general officer representing the Missile Defense Agency in Europe has been dual-hatted as NATO's lead for European missile defense. One of my coworkers just brough him in for a series of meetings at the Pentagon last month, so she should remember his name and his formal titles.


Eli said...

Bush doesn't want a treaty on military space tech because it might not allow him to carry a gun on the moon base he wants so bad.

In all seriousness, this discussion makes me wonder about how this "keeping our options open" policy will effect future development at NASA. It seems to me the priority during space missions could begin to lean more heavily towards the defense tech end as missile defense and ASAT research develops in the decades to come. As far as I know, this could already be happening.

But then again, this could always be a boon for NASA in gaining budgetary leverage.

Robot Economist said...

Eli -

I don't know if NASA would be so eager to get involved in defense programs. Even though uniformed officers are often seconded to NASA, it is still a civilian organization focused on peaceful projects. The law that created NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958) also draws an explicit line between NASA's missions and the Defense Department's missions (from Section 102(b)):

(b) The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities.

The Congress further declares that such activities shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, a civilian agency exercising control over aeronautical and space activities sponsored by the United States, except that activities peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems, military operations, or the defense of the United States (including the research and development necessary to make effective provision for the defense of the United States) shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, the Department of Defense; and that determination as to which such agency has responsibility for and direction of any such activity shall be made by the President in conformity with section 2471(e).