Spite-Based National Security Policy

Prague Clock Tower, Czech Republic

Prague Clock Tower, Czech Republic

Today, the Obama administration announced officially that it will kill a Bush administration initiative to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to protect Europe from Iranian missiles. This is a good call. Bush’s idea was hugely expensive, and massively illogical. For one thing, Poland and the Czech Republic aren’t in any sense between Iran and Europe. Nor is Iran actually threatening Europe with any missiles. Which is why nobody in Europe particularly wanted this thing built. The exception was the Poles and Czechs themselves who liked the idea as a token of America’s commitment to defend them against Russia. Which is how we wound up situation an anti-Iranian missile shield in a place that doesn’t make sense as an anti-Iranian measure, but does piss off Russia.

Conservatives, because they’re stupid and immoral, have decided that antagonizing the Russians is a feature rather than a bug of the program. Thus, Senator Jim DeMint thinks it shows “weakness” to stop wasting money on a useless but annoying-to-Russia program. Michael Goldfarb deems it “appeasement”. This is another example of inane spite-based thinking in foreign policy. Basically the idea is that if the Russians don’t want us to do something, we have to do it because otherwise we’re appeasing them and next thing you know Vladimir Putin will be marching on Paris.

Common sense indicates the exact reverse. In general, you should avoid antagonizing other countries and especially other major countries with which you have a complicated bilateral relationship. If you have some very good reason to want to do something that will antagonize Russia, then maybe you have to do it. But antagonizing them counts as a cost of the policy, not a benefit. When you take a program with a huge financial cost and no real security benefit, and then add the “Russia will be mad” factor into the mix the policy looks worse not better as a result. Matt Duss rightly sees conservatives’ anger at Obama’s decision as part of the catechism of Reaganism and the cult of missile defense, but it should also be seen as part of a broader conservative worldview that wants to lodge the United States in a lot of negative-sum conflicts and fails to see the possibility for positive-sum cooperation.