Chuck Hagel deserves praise — four words I did not expect to be writing — for announcing an expansion of the U.S. missile-defense system. Fourteen additional ground-based long-range missile interceptors are to be installed in Alaska by 2017 at a cost of $1 billion. Their purpose: to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles before those ICBMs can reach their intended victims. Combined with interceptors in California, this will bring the total number of West Coast interceptors to 44.
More praise will be due if this turns out to represent a broader change of heart on missile defense within the Obama administration. Consider: In 2001, Barack Obama, then a state senator, said flatly: “I don’t agree with a missile-defense system.” Seven years later, during his first presidential campaign, then-senator Obama pledged to slash $10 billion from the Pentagon’s missile-defense budget — about $1 billion more than the U.S. was actually spending on missile defense at the time. In 2009 then-senator Chuck Hagel, appearing on Al Jazeera, asked: “How can we preach to other countries that you can’t have nuclear weapons but we can and our allies can?” (One possible answer — that some countries threaten their neighbors, proliferate nuclear technology, sponsor terrorism, and oppress their citizens, while others do not — eluded him at that moment.)
Also in 2009, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was prepared to provide a global missile “defense umbrella.” That would have been historic — but it never got off the ground (if you will excuse the expression). In fact, missile-defense spending was actually cut by $1 billion that year, and there have been cuts every year since. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Representative Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, charged that the “damage done to missile defense by this administration will take billions of dollars to undo, and finding that money is so much tougher now.”