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Deciphering Obama on Missile Defense

Deciphering Obama on Missile Defense

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Report

Barack Obama has repeatedly assured New Delhi of his support for the US-India nuclear deal. He has not, however, mentioned the missile defense program in either his reported communications or his conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The government of India has voiced gratification over the president-elect's revised stand on the deal, about which Senator Obama has aired serious reservations. The Singh regime has remained silent on missile defense, but this does not mean that the "strategic partner" of the US has no concern on that count.

Expressions of serious concern over Obama's outlook on missile defense have emanated from another part of the world - Russia and countries of Eastern Europe if they are not entirely equated with their ruling establishments. It would appear to be time for Obama to break his silence on the issue to a waiting world.

India's interest in his stand on the subject is not inexplicable. On June 27, 2005, in Washington, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and India's Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee signed a ten-year agreement titled the New Framework for US-India Defense Relationship (NFDR). The agreement had a provision for India's induction into the global missile defense program (GMD) of George Bush's initiation. The provision amounted to a prescription for a dangerous, new India-Pakistan arms race with a nuclear dimension.

It had all started, in fact, in the days of the far-right National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in New Delhi. The NDA regime was one of the very few governments in the world, and probably the only one in the third world, to welcome the Bush version of the "Star Wars" program. The Vajpayee government went out of its way to accept in public the untenable proposition that the program was actually an attempt at effecting "deep slashes" in the US nuclear arsenal.

When the Vajpayee government was voted out and Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition replaced it, some US and Indian experts predicted dark days for US-India missile defense cooperation. They have been proven wrong.

In January of this year, India approached the US afresh for upscaled assistance in its missile defense efforts. India's Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) was seeking American collaboration in critical subsystems such as "hit-to-kill" technology for its interceptor missiles.

At the same time, India entered into talks with Lockheed Martin, apparently with the aim of seeking collaboration in developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. Almost simultaneously, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that the US and India were going to discuss the possibility of a joint missile defense system.

Some analysts then saw limited scope for such cooperation as India actually aimed at an indigenously built "missile shield." As an expert publication pointed out, however, "given that the US leads the world in BMD technology, the lack of alternative suppliers and the growing threat posed by Pakistan and China as they pursue ambitious missile programs, it seems likely that India will indeed seek to develop a BMD shield in collaboration with the US."

While Obama did not have to reveal his mind on missile defense cooperation with India, he could not evade the issue in relation to Eastern Europe. During the election campaign, in fact, he was widely seen as opposed to deployment of missile defense interceptors in Poland and the Star Wars radar in the Czech Republic, a move that seemed designed to provoke Russia.

Published reports of the telephonic conversation between Poland's President Lech Kaczynski about Obama on the morrow of his victory, however, raised new posers about the president-elect's missile defense policy. Even as Kaczynski was rejoicing over Obama's apparently revised stand, the latter issued a clarification that he had made "no commitment" about the deployment.

Obama then spelt out what his supporters might call a nuanced policy. He said. "Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons pose serious national security risks, especially when delivered on ballistic missiles that can strike our homeland, our troops abroad, or our allies. Missile defenses can be a significant part of a plan to reduce these dangers, but they must be proven to work and pursued as part of an integrated approach that uses the full range of nonproliferation policy tools in response to the full range of threats we face."

He added, "As president, I will make sure any missile defense, including the one proposed for Europe, has been proven to work and has our allies' support before we deploy it. I will also strengthen the Missile Technology Control Regime and explore other arms control measures ...."

He also talked of the greater importance of dealing with terrorists than with "rogue states." He said, "We spend more than $10 billion a year on missile defense, but far too little on securing nuclear materials around the world and improving security (including detection) at our ports and borders."

Not everyone accepted the Democratic version of the Obama-Kaczynski dialogue. Bruce Gagon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (GN), asked: "Is it ... Kaczynski who is telling a tall tale? Why would he, after his first conversation with Obama, lie to the world about their talk? That would constitute getting off to a very bad start with the new US president, which I would imagine is not something the Polish government would want to do. I would venture to guess Kaczynski was excited about the conversation and wanted to share it with the whole world that Obama had changed his mind on the deployment issue." Gagon added, "On Obama's part I can imagine he might have figured their conversation was private and off the record. But when it suddenly was splashed across the world via the BBC that Obama had changed his position, the embarrassment was too much and a denial had to be immediately issued ..."

He spoke for more than the GN when he warned, "The deployment of missile defense interceptors in Poland and the Star Wars radar in the Czech Republic, aimed at Russia, stand to create a new arms race in Europe. If Obama is willing to take that step, then we are in big trouble for sure." Obama, of course, will be under pressure form the peace movement that helped catapult him to power. But he will be under equal, if not, greater pressure from the establishment, with which he has to enter into a working relationship. Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, has seen it fit to serve the warning that American interests would be "severely hurt" if Obama decided to halt plans developed by the Bush administration to install missile interceptors in Eastern Europe.

This is only the beginning of the post-Bush challenge on a front that might appear futuristic (as the "Star Wars" rhetoric sounds) but actually concerns peace issues of the present. The world will wait, also, to see the stand Obama's America adopts on questions like replacing the outdated Outer Space Treaty of 1967 with a pact that reverses the process of space weaponization calculated to promote the cause of the planet's powerful warmongers.

Reverting to India, we may recall that, after New Delhi talks in 2005 on extending "Star Wars" to South Asia, US Assistant Secretary for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker said, "Missile defense is very expensive. So, it is not something that India will enter into lightly." The astronomical expenditure the program will entail, the additional burden it will place on the broken back of India's poor billions, however, has not weighed heavily with the country's successive rulers.

A similar thought will, hopefully, also strike Bush's successor and his band who, after all, have won a mandate after the meltdown.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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