Commentary: Obama gives Russia and Iran a nice gift

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl nailed it: President Obama's decision to scrap missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe "turns back the clock to the days of the Cold War, when Eastern Europe was considered the domain of Russia."

You can be sure that Poland and the Czech Republic, where the missile facilities would have been based, have gotten the message, even as temporizers in Washington pretend Obama's move was deft and clever.

The lead headline in a Polish newspaper declared, "Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back." A Czech business paper concluded, "an ally we rely on has betrayed us, and exchanged us for its own, better relations with Russia...."

Poland and the Czech Republic are members of NATO, the North Atlantic alliance. Members pledge that an attack against one is an attack against all.

But now that Moscow has successfully faced down the Obama White House, the Poles and Czechs naturally wonder where they stand.

The administration says it will post regional defenses against Iran's short- and medium-range missiles. But the facilities in Eastern Europe — a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland — not only would have been a counter to Iran's push to improve its missile technology. The plan would have backed up the U.S. commitment to the defense of Eastern Europe with a permanent physical presence.

All along, critics of missile defense have repeated the mantra "it doesn't work," even as the technology has steadily improved and new layers of defense for shorter-range threats have been added, augmenting interceptors now installed in Alaska and California.

What the skeptics miss is the significant change caused by missile defense in a rogue state's calculation of risk. Even a system rated at, say, 50 percent effectiveness will give pause: An adversary must consider the grave implications of an act of war against a U.S. ally, only to have its best shot swatted down.

Rogue states such as Iran and North Korea know they can never match the U.S. advantage in conventional warfare. Missile technology, combined with nuclear weapons development, is an asymmetric strategy — an attempt to make an end run around the U.S. conventional advantage.

We're told the Iranians aren't making as much progress in long-range missile development as earlier thought, and in any case they're far from mastering the miniaturization technology needed for nukes fitted to missile warheads.

Perhaps so, yet our intelligence agencies have been miserable at predicting the speed at which threats appear. We were surprised by the Pakistani nuke. When we went into Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991, the Pentagon discovered that Iraq's nuclear weapons program was much farther along than we thought.

The time to have your defense in place is before the appearance of the threat. Even if a real threat is years hence, the very presence of a defense — however imperfect — can influence decision-making. It may have a deterrent effect on the willingness of rogue states to spend scarce resources on a technology whose usefulness would steadily decline as our defenses become more elaborate.

Obama has delivered a gift to both Moscow and Teheran, apparently without asking anything in return. Last year, Democrats went around saying they favored a foreign policy that was "tough but smart." If appeasing Russia is an example, what we've got here is more along the lines of weak and naive.