Obama’s BMD Gambit

I mentioned yesterday that President Barack Obama explained the START follow-on agreement in terms of shoring up the credibility of the NPT. That suggests to me that the arms treaty is not a a bargaining chip to get Russia on board for a tougher stance on Iran, but rather a way to address Iran’s accusations that the U.S. applies the obligations of the NPT selectively.

On the other hand, I just noticed that in his speech yesterday, Obama directly linked the logic of European-based missile defense with Russia’s willingness to apply meaningful pressure on Iran. That’s as close as anything I’ve seen to date of a clarification of Obama’s thinking on the BMD question.

It bears pointing out that the two approaches, projected over the long-term, creates some internal tensions. As Sam Roggeveen pointed out a few weeks back, although BMD doesn’t pose a reasonable threat to Russia given its current nuclear arsenal, “as Russia’s arsenal shrinks, the problem will become more acute.” (He’s got a link to a “highly technical study” explaining why for any wonks).

So in all likelihood, the BMD gambit is a longshot to change Moscow’s behavior, let alone its thinking. For that matter, the arms control gambit is probably the same, vis à vis Tehran’s.

I still think it’s a good idea, especially at such an early stage ofhis presidency, for Obama to sit down at the table and get somebusiness accomplished with the Russians. And he also didn’t shy away from mentioning the points of disagreement. So in some ways, the reset — which could only be one of tone, not of interests — was accomplished.

But the relationship with Russia will probably remain patchy for the near future. As a French analyst once tld me, Russia is neither an ally nor an enemy. At times it will be part of the solution, and at times it will be part of the problem. For now, Obama walked away with a couple of solutions in hand.