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Prague '09: Swan Song for Star Wars

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When President Obama reaches Prague this Sunday, he'll be riding the wake of an eventful week. While most of the world followed the G-20, Russian-US rapprochement and our dreamy First Lady, here in DC we were preoccupied with budgets and the President's new policy for defeating terrorism and Al Qaeda (Afghanistan Review). This policy review -- which importantly takes a regional lens to the problem -- intends to to help Afghanistan and Pakistan become more prosperous and less violent. It embraces a broad view of security--recognizing the vital influence of economics, political institutions and information sharing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the US military increase in Afghanistan, at the very least be glad that this review explicitly and enthusiastically endorses a comprehensive approach where non-military security needs are recognized and prominent.

That's why it was shocking when, just a few days later, the House Budget Committee whacked five billion dollars out of the civilian funding account for national security (called the 150 or State Department funding for shorthand) and then the Senate whacked four billion. The defense budget, of course, was off the table. Untouchable. Which means that, despite the fact that we have a new president, with a bold new set of ideas and a willingness to take risks. Who is modernizing our strategy to lead more by example and less by coercion. Who wants to put citizens in line before commercial interests in government. Who will, hopefully, reverse the lingering doubts among our allies that still exist because we dragged everyone through the mud for eight years. And Congress can't even fund a budget that reflects this strategic vision.

We need a security strategy that keeps us safer and costs less. There's no reason this can't happen. But it will also cause economic dislocation, re-distribution of tax dollars and a Congress that puts the nation's collective interest first. We are beyond the protection of the military in today's world. For us to move forward, Congress must quit making defense spending off limits. If we've learned anything over the past decade, it's that more defense spending does not purchase more security -- to the opposite. Here's what it does: It separates defense strategy from spending decisions, it causes unaccountable behavior by the Defense Department and it buffs up the mansion construction trade in Virginia. We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars on this program since it started. Given how dubious the technology, that's like 800 million bridges to nowhere in space.

We can't afford Star Wars anymore. We just can't. The practical reason we need to ditch this program -- and I'll be more specific here and just focus on European Missile Defense -- is that it doesn't work. The strategic reason is that its ability to protect us doesn't rank high enough within the domain of risks that we face. What will keep us safer is the stuff the Congress cut from the budget. In today's world, a legitimate criminal justice system in Pakistan will keep us safer than missile defense. An Israel Palestinian peace process will do more. Funding more international nuclear inspectors and making a deal with Iran will keep us safer than this program. We need to fund the Coast Guard, for Heaven's sakes!

Oh, and the Europeans don't want it. (the Polish and the Czech publics consistently reject it)

European Missile Defense is projected to cost between 9-14 billion dollars to implement. In his speech to Congress earlier this year, the president promised to cut obsolete weapons programs that were devised in the last century to defend against an enemy that disappeared nearly two decades ago. Here are some greatest hits about why this program should be terminated:

It is set to deploy despite inadequate testing and inconclusive demonstrations. Our moves to deploy make a farce of what used to be the golden rule of defense procurement: "fly before you buy." European Missile Defense has never been tested under anything approaching realistic conditions. The former head of Pentagon weapons testing likened it to "comparing the results of an open book exam."

Those in charge of evaluation consistently move the goalposts so that there is no clear information about results. Our own Government Accountability Office issued a report this month that claimed that the Missile Defense Agency at DoD produces and fields assets before they are fully demonstrated through testing and modeling..." and those tests and simulations produce less validation of performance than planned....."

Missile Defense has never been subject to a comprehensive and accurate risk assessment -- this includes any Iranian missile threat -- we actually don't know enough to make any certain statements (according to recent CRS research report). This is inexcusable given what we have learned about global threats over the past decade, because we are stuck in an old framework, we ignore non traditional threats like pandemic disease and criminal networks -- at our peril.

The Europeans don't want it. The parliaments of neither the Czech Republic or of Poland has agreed to the missile defense agreement. The Czech parliament, in fact, pulled the missile defense vote in March because they lacked the votes to pass it. The Czech president stepped down recently in part over this issue. The Czech public is hostile to the program. The Polish public, though less organized, is not supportive either. Moreover, Europeans don't feel particularly threatened by Iran.

The USA has not made an official commitment to this program. Time to break up and move on to create policies and a relationship that meets today's real security needs.

A better way to ensure the safety of Europe is for the USA to truly pursue our self interests and lead a new international effort to modernize international non-proliferation -- including at the upcoming Non Proliferation Treaty review conference, and to continue developing alternatives for working with Russia and Iran. Poland and the Czech Republic have legitimate security concerns -- but these will be far better served through other allied activities, including securing dangerous materials at their source through the nuclear threat reduction program -- and improved cooperation on law enforcement. (Since we already said we will put 100 ground based Patriot missiles in Poland. Fine, for whatever psychological comfort that is worth -- the PAC3 is best known for its friendly fire kill record.) As for North Korea, their leadership might be looney, but it's not suicidal. And if we're not taking action before or when they put something dangerous on the launchpad -- we've got way bigger problems than I thought.

American States who will fight any cuts: Top states for this program are Alaska, Alabama, Arizona. The PR campaigns of the top weapons contractors have begun in full force and they are flooding Congress. They are defending their interests to shift defense spending to more effective national security programs will cause lots of economic dislocation. Check out the Center for Public Integrity's website if you want to trace the dollars. Boeing cites involvement of 32 companies at 38 facilities in 19 states, including Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Florida and Georgia.

My advice to local peace and anti-war groups: If you want to move policy priorities in the coming years, dust off those old economic conversion plans from the 1980s and start talking to your friends and neighbors in communities like Huntsville, Topeka, Tucson and Fairbanks because the shift we need to keep us safe is going to cause uncomfortable changes -- Last month at a defense budget forum on Capitol Hill, Representative Barney Frank (MA) spoke of the need for the peace movement to pursue a two-stage strategy on shifting defense spending -- especially given the economic straits we are in. What we need is to cut programs, but not insist on transferring the money (i.e. no guns vs. butter framing). Just give the money back to the Treasury for now. One success like this will garner momentum and wedge open an entire conversation about redefining security altogether.

Our nation basically needs a twelve-step program to recover from a Cold War addiction. Cutting European Missile Defense -- and helping the communities impacted convert to other security priorities (energy, environmental tech) or other economic activities -- is step one.

P.S. An amendment by Senators Kerry and Lugar restored the State Department (150) funding. Thank you, gentlemen.