Weighing The Impact Of The Missile Defense Move

Robert Siegel explores the broader implications of President Obama's decision to discontinue a Bush administration missile defense system in eastern Europe. He'll be joined by Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former editor and columnist for The New York Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Leslie Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author most recently of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" and he joins us from New York. Welcome back to program Les Gelb.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (President, Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations): Good to talk with you Robert.

SIEGEL: You, in the past, described the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe as something that the U.S. might have to give up in order to get Russian cooperation on things like Iran. And something you said we didn't need anyway. Has Washington just delivered a quid in exchange for a Russian quo?

Mr. GELB: We don't know that whether there's Russian quo. I hope there is. There should be because the Russians have made a big deal out of this potential deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic. It was a good bargaining chip.

SIEGEL: If indeed it was a bargaining chip, what do you make of the stated rationale for this decision, that it's response to new intelligence about Iranian missile programs and about new developments in U.S. anti-missile programs?

Mr. GELB: Essentially, I think the Obama administration has got to show us that this is so. I'm not aware of any new intelligence on Iran's missile capabilities. We've known for a long time that they're having problems developing long-range missiles and they're sure to go with shorter and-medium range missiles. And we've known all along that they had no plans to attack Eastern Europe. That was a fictitious rationale for those deployments. So, I think basically the Obama administration was looking to correct what it believes was a strategic mistake, knows that the Poles and the Czechs won't be happy about our backing down on it now, and is looking to explain it in a way that causes the least problems.

SIEGEL: Are the problems that this causes in Eastern Europe political and strategic as well, or only political?

Mr. GELB: That's a good question. It's certainly not military because everybody knows, even the Russians who are complaining about the future deployment of the system, that they could overwhelm those defense is very easily with their missile capability. So it was strategic. It was an American statement that we were involved in the security of Eastern Europe and Poland and Czech Republic in particular, and they liked that. They also liked the money they were going to get from the deployment of these systems.

SIEGEL: Senator John McCain criticized this as a seriously misguided decision and there are other conservatives on foreign policy who think that the U.S. is caving to the Russians here - we're not accustomed to that language about our relationship with Russia for - it's been a long time - but is there some danger here of at least appearing to be obliging the Russians on a serious issue of national defense?

Mr. GELB: I think President Obama will be accused of doing just that by Republicans and by Eastern Europeans who don't like our walking this cat back. But I don't think anyone ever believed there was any real risk of an Iranian attack on Eastern Europe.

SIEGEL: In fact, the anti-missile system that the U.S. is now going to look to could actually be a good deal closer to Iran than this system in Eastern Europe that…

Mr. GELB: There's no question about it. And the fact of the matter is the Shipboard Missile Defenses are probably the best anti-missile system we have today. So, if there should be the development of medium or short-range Iranian missiles aimed at the Middle East this would be a better system to protect them.

SIEGEL: Leslie Gelb, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. GELB: Always a treat to be with you.

SIEGEL: Les Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations spoke to us from New York.

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