Sometimes, unguarded moments provide the most profound political insights. That was certainly the case this week at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, where President Obama's sidebar conversation with his outgoing Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, offered a telling glimpse of what the administration truly thinks about missile defense - and just how far it is willing to go for good relations with Russia.
The candid exchange, captured on microphone and subsequently carried by various news agencies, entailed an appeal by Mr. Obama for more "space" and "flexibility" from Russia on the missile-defense issue until after the U.S. presidential election in November. At that time, presumably, Mr. Obama - having secured a second term - would be able to strike a more sweeping bargain on missile defense with Moscow than currently possible.
The revelation is deeply worrisome. When Mr. Obama was elected back in 2008, missile-defense stalwarts were concerned that his administration would be quick to demolish the anti-missile capabilities that had been erected during the George W. Bush era. These included the deployment of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska, significant work on an array of theater systems, and major advances in sea-based defenses.
The Obama White House stopped short of doing so outright, but it did make significant changes to the focus of American missile-defense efforts. The new missile-defense agenda unveiled publicly by the White House in September 2009 replaced the "spiral development" of the Bush era in which multiple, overlapping systems were developed and fielded when they matured, with a weighted four-phase plan.
The near-term focus of this "phased adaptive approach" was overwhelmingly on the defense of American allies abroad (most directly in Europe) from rogue- state threats such as Iran. Serious investments in missile defenses to protect the U.S. homeland were put off until 2016, when Mr. Obama's second term - assuming he secures one - would be over. By doing so, the plan created a clear delineation between the defense of allies and of the U.S. homeland - and sent a clear signal that the former was acceptable while the latter was not.
That focus, of course, tracks closely with one of the administration's most cherished foreign policy initiatives: a "reset" of relations with Russia. Launched with considerable fanfare by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in March 2009, that effort has sought renewed diplomatic and political engagement with Moscow through a range of initiatives, arms control chief among them.
Yet even the lopsided approach to missile defense embraced by the White House has drawn the Kremlin's ire. Over the past two years, U.S. and NATO plans for the deployment of a limited missile shield in the eurozone have created tremendous friction with Moscow, which adamantly opposes the deployment of any such capabilities on its periphery.
Washington, to its credit, has forged ahead regardless, working with NATO to establish early-warning radars in Turkey and bringing Romania on board as a basing site for anti-missile interceptors. But the lure of better diplomatic relations with Moscow remains seductive and - as Mr. Obama's comments in Seoul suggest - missile defense could easily end up becoming the currency that America pays in its dogged pursuit of the "reset."
So what might American "flexibility" on missile defense entail? Since the start of the "reset," the Kremlin has leveled a slew of demands at the White House pertaining to missile defense. They have included, among other things, a legally binding agreement to limit missile defenses; deployment restrictions on U.S. sea-based ballistic-missile-defense systems; joint control over launches in response to ballistic-missile threats; and even restrictions on America's own interception capabilities vis-a-vis intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Any one of those demands, if acceded to by the White House, could be crippling to our ability to defend against ballistic-missile attack. If all of them are enacted, the results would be ruinous: an evisceration of existing U.S. anti-missile capabilities, and a neutering of our future ability to deploy more.
That Mr. Obama has so clearly signaled he is willing to contemplate them is a sign of just how fragile and reversible his administration's commitment to missile defense truly is. It is also a testament to the White House's dogged determination to diplomatically engage the Kremlin, no matter how steep the cost.