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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cheney’s Misguided Missile Attack

Dick Cheney says President Obama scrapped the Bush administration’s missile defense system in Europe “at the mere request” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the new strategy was based on two things: evidence that Iran had accelerated its short- and medium-range missile programs and technological advances that allowed the U.S. to develop what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called “a far more effective defense.”

Gates, who recommended the Bush plan, writes in a memoir that “new intelligence” published in February 2009 — less than a month after Obama took office –prompted him and other military leaders to “rethink our priorities.” He writes that critics are wrong to describe Obama’s new strategy as “a big concession to the Russians.”

Cheney, Bush’s vice president, discussed European missile defense on “Fox News Sunday” in the context of the current crisis in the Ukraine caused by Russia seizing control of Crimea. Cheney blamed the crisis, in part, on Obama allowing himself to be “pushed around” by Putin — beginning with Obama’s 2009 decision on missile defense in Eastern Europe.

Cheney, May 18: We saw, for example, at the mere request from Putin, President Obama withdrew the plans for a missile defense program based in Poland and the Czech Republic. He’s demonstrated repeatedly, I think, that he, in fact, can be pushed around, if you will, by a — by the Putins. And I don’t think by — Mr. Putin has any hesitation at all, from the standpoint of the American president, of changing his course of action.

Cheney’s partisan attack is at odds with the public statements and writings of a man who is in the unique position to know the intimate details of the Bush and Obama plans: Robert M. Gates, who served as defense secretary under Bush and Obama from December 2006 to July 2011.

The Bush plan called for the U.S. to place fixed radars in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. As the Washington Post reported at the time, the Bush administration said the plan was “not meant to counter Russia, with its huge nuclear arsenal, but to protect against a ‘rogue state’ such as Iran or North Korea attacking with a small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Gates recommended the Bush plan, which was announced in January 2007, and he visited Moscow three months later to discuss it with Putin.

Gates, who stayed on as Obama’s defense secretary for more than two years, wrote in a Sept. 19, 2009 New York Times op-ed that he recommended the missile defense program to Bush in December 2006 as the “best plan” at that time. But he later recommended that Obama scrap that plan because of new intelligence showing Iran’s long-range missile threat did not develop as quickly as the country’s short- and medium-range missile programs.

The New York Times described the differences between the two defense systems in a Sept. 17, 2009 story when the new plan was announced:

New York Times, Sept. 17, 2009: The administration’s new four-phase plan would deploy existing SM-3 interceptors using the sea-based Aegis system in 2011, then deploy an improved version in 2015 both on ships and on land. Rather than the 10 bigger interceptors originally envisioned for Poland, there could be 40 to 50 of the smaller missiles on land by then and more on ships. A more advanced version would be deployed in 2018 and yet another generation in 2020, the latter with more capacity to counter intercontinental missiles.

The interceptors Mr. Bush wanted to put in Poland would not have been deployed until 2018, officials said. The SM-3 missiles have had eight successful tests so far, and were used to shoot down a satellite, although critics said the missiles have not had to cope with the sort of decoys enemies might use. Instead of the sophisticated radar proposed for the Czech Republic, officials said they would rely more on a limited version in Turkey or the Caucasus, as well as satellites and newly developed airborne sensors.

The Obama administration said the new plan would be phased in, beginning in 2011, and “provides greater flexibility and promises faster deployment of current technologies.”

Gates wrote in his op-ed that he believed the new plan would “be a far more effective defense should an enemy fire many missiles simultaneously — the kind of attack most likely to occur as Iran continues to build and deploy numerous short- and medium-range weapons.”

Even after he left office, Gates said he believed scrapping the missile defense system he once recommended to Bush was the right thing to do and he explains why.

In his book, Gates admits the Obama administration “wanted me out front” to explain the change in strategy and provide “political cover” for the new administration. But he said it was “okay in this instance since I sincerely believed the new program was better — more in accordance with the political realities in Europe and more effective against the emerging Iranian threat.” Gates explains what led him to this change of heart:

Gates, “Duty,” Jan. 14, 2014: A new intelligence estimate of the Iranian missile program published in February 2009 caused us in Defense to rethink our priorities. The assessment said the long-range Iranian missile threat had not matured as anticipated but the threat from Iranian short- and medium-range missiles, which could strike our troops and facilities in Europe and the Middle East, had developed more rapidly than expected and had become the Iranian government’s priority…. These conclusions raised serious questions about our existing strategy, which had been developed primarily to provide improved defenses for the U.S. homeland — not Europe — against long-range Iranian missiles launched one or two at a time.

Gates went on to write that the Bush plan for 10 interceptors in Poland “would easily be overwhelmed by a salvo launch of dozens of shorter-range missiles.”

In the spring of 2009, General James Cartwright, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under both Bush and Obama, briefed Gates on “technological advances made during the previous two years with the sea-based Standard Missile 3s (SM-3) and the possibility of using them as a missile defense alternative to the ground-based interceptors.” Gates also wrote that there had been “technological advances in airborne, space-based, and ground-based sensors that considerably outperformed the fixed-site radar originally intended for the Czech Republic.”

Gates credits Cartwright as being “a strong and early advocate for a new approach.”

So, the decision to scrap the Bush plan and develop a new one was based on new intelligence and technology advantages and had the support of two top military leaders who served both presidents. It did not come “at the mere request” of Putin, as Cheney said.

We should note that Gates’ book surprised some of those who have followed his career because of its unsparing criticism of a sitting president, including an accusation that his White House kept agreements “only as long as they were politically convenient.” But, in this case, Gates pointedly writes that critics who say the president caved to the Russians are wrong. He wrote that the Russians saw Obama’s plan as more of a threat than the Bush plan.

Gates, “Duty,” Jan. 14, 2014: How ironic that U.S. critics of the new approach had portrayed it as a big concession to the Russians. It would have been nice to hear a critic in Washington – just once in my career – say, Well I got that one wrong.

— Eugene Kiely