Were there an award for the worst idea produced in Washington in recent days, there would be many worthy competitors, but I think I’d put my money on this one: Granting Russians the power to tell Americans whether we can or cannot shoot down missiles flying toward their intended victims.
Who would even consider such an idea? The Obama administration — or so it appears. In response, last week, 39 Republican Senators sent the president a strongly worded letter requesting his assurance, in writing, that he will not give Russia such “red button” rights. The letter asks for reassurance, as well, that the administration will not give Russia American missile defense information “including early warning, detection, tracking, targeting and telemetry data, sensors or common operational picture data, or American hit-to-kill missile defense technology.”
Here’s how this came about: In recent months, the Obama administration, as part of its policy to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia, has offered to integrate the Kremlin into both the American and NATO ballistic missile defense systems. Last month, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher said the administration is “eager to begin a joint analysis, joint exercises, and sharing of early warning data that could form the basis for a cooperative missile defense system.”
This month, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, said his government was inclined to favor such cooperation but would “insist on only one thing ... a red-button push to start an anti-missile.”
In their letter, the Republican senators, led by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., make this larger point: “No American president should ever allow a foreign nation to dictate when or how the United States defends our country and our allies. In our view, any agreement that would allow Russia to influence the defense of the United States or our allies, to say nothing of a ‘red button’ or veto, would constitute a failure of leadership.”
Kirk also drafted a memo providing “context” for what he fears is the administration’s willingness to reveal to the Kremlin “some of our country’s most sensitive technology, collection assets and real-time intelligence.”
“Admitting the Russians into the most important and time-sensitive parts of our nation’s defense,” the memo argues, “is extremely risky and could present a fatal vulnerability. ... Providing Russia any access to U.S. sensitive data would undermine the national security of the United States.”
Kirk lists a dozen recent cases of Russian espionage targeting the U.S. and about the same number of instances of Russian collaboration with Iran’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles. In addition, as “part of its assistance to Iran in building the Bushehr nuclear reactor, Russia has trained some 1,500 Iranian nuclear engineers ...”
So to be clear: Russia is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to its enemies while simultaneously “insisting” the U.S. give Russian officials the power to decide whether Americans can defend themselves and their allies from Iranian attacks.
If President Barack Obama sees such ideas as ludicrous, if this is not where he’s heading, he should say so. A brief letter would do. At least 39 Senators will be anxiously checking their mailboxes.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.