Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

President Barack Obama got caught Monday talking with the microphone left on -- again. This time, he was telling Russia’s outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev that it would be better to leave talks about NATO’s contentious missile defense system until after U.S. elections in November, when Obama would have “more flexibility.”

No shock or awe there. Anyone who believes electoral politics don’t play a big role in driving foreign policy has been leading a very secluded life. Campaign-year outrage from Obama’s rivals over the remarks is probably inevitable, but it would also be disingenuous because we all know better. Besides, nuclear missile defense is a slow-burning fuse -- talks can wait until after November without any consequence.

Yet, there was something a little worrisome in this overheard conversation: Just how flexible does Obama plan to be with Russia on the missile defense, which he redesigned once already to take account of Russian concerns?

A quick recap is in order here. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. withdrew in 2002 from the Cold War Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that had restricted U.S. and Soviet missile defense programs for 30 years. In 2007, the U.S. started preparations for a missile defense system -- ostensibly against an Iranian attack -- with its front legs in Europe. The forward radar for the system was to be in the Czech Republic, and Poland would host the missiles that would shoot down any long-range ballistic missiles Iran might let fly. Russia, however, saw the shield as a naked Cold War power play by the U.S. and was mad as hell.

A Diminishing Power

That anger was easy to understand. Poland is close to Russia, but a long way from Iran. A powerful U.S. radar in the Czech Republic would cover most of European Russia and the sensitive Caucasus region, as well as Iran. Above all, the plan was humiliating to Russia, challenging its already diminished strategic position in the region. The Soviet Union may have agreed in its final years to dissolve the Warsaw Pact and give up control of its central and Eastern European satellites, but replacing Russian tanks with U.S. missile systems in those countries was never part of the deal.

Fast forward to Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia. A big piece of that policy involved a redesign of the missile defense plan, rolled out in September 2009. The system, rebranded as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, was made into a North Atlantic Treaty Organization program. It was more pragmatic than the original, because it would start small and cheap, using existing technology to address capabilities the Iranians might have in the immediate future. The system would eventually graduate to new technologies and be capable of shooting down long-range ballistic missiles by about 2020.

The early stages of the new plan don’t include Poland or the Czech Republic. The forward radar is now located instead in eastern Turkey, and the initial anti-missile batteries would be put on ships and in Romania. But by the fourth and final phase, Poland would be back in the picture.

Russia remains unhappy. It wants an equal role and a written legal guarantee from the U.S. that the missile defense system would never be turned against Russia’s nuclear arsenal. That’s something Congress would never agree to.

There was plenty of room 10 years ago for skepticism about the need for an expensive, untried missile system to protect U.S. bases, Europe and the U.S. from Iran. But the Middle East is changing quickly. In 10 or 15 years, the region may have several nuclear-armed militaries, including Iran’s, and possibly new and unpredictable regimes in charge. We think that in its revised form, NATO’s moving ahead on missile defense represents reasonable insurance against low probability but catastrophic future risks. If those risks fail to appear, the shield’s later and most expensive phases can be dropped.

Ideas for Cooperation

It would be best to have Russia on board with the program if that can be achieved. There are some interesting proposals available. Dean Wilkening, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, suggests building a joint U.S-Russian $500 million radar complex in central Russia, using U.S. technology. This, he says, would significantly improve both Russia’s dated early warning network and the coverage of NATO’s missile shield. That sounds smart to us. The U.S. and NATO have also been looking at ways to make the shield’s technology and capabilities transparent to Russia, to avoid any destabilizing paranoia. Those efforts should be redoubled.

Still, we suspect Russia’s objections are pretty much zero sum and will be tough to meet without ceding the Kremlin a veto over the system’s use, which is and should be a nonstarter. Vladimir Putin used the missile system’s alleged threat to Russia’s security to drum up votes during his recent presidential campaign -- he’ll take office again in May. Putin and Medvedev have threatened to build a new generation of missiles capable of penetrating U.S. defenses, at huge expense, if NATO’s plans are followed through. The White House should ignore this saber-rattling.

Renewing the arms race would be a terrible outcome of a missile shield’s construction, but it would damage mostly Russia. The Soviet Union discovered the risk involved in trying to match U.S. military spending from revenue that is dependent on fickle oil and gas prices. Putin would be unwise to repeat that mistake.

Obama should go on talking to the Russians about missile defense and yes, he can show some flexibility. But there is no pre-election urgency, and the decision on whether the NATO allies need a nuclear shield is for those countries alone to make. Russia’s threats should not be allowed to dilute the effectiveness of an insurance policy we might one day need.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View. Today’s highlights:

The editors on health-care reform’s day in court and Russia’s objections to missile defense. Jeffrey Goldberg on Israel’s overconfident leaders. Ramesh Ponnuru on how Republicans will react if the Supreme Court upholds Obamacare. Edward Glaeser on regulation that can aid entrepreneurs. Simon Johnson and James Kwak on why the U.S. abandoned the gold standard.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.