Steve Chapman
Hawks in the wild tend to be solitary creatures. But those in Washington, D.C., often appear in noisy flocks. As Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his predatory activities in Ukraine, conservatives here are unanimous on how the Obama administration should respond: by emulating the Bush administration.

A favorite demand is reviving the European missile defense that George W. Bush began during his final months in office. "We could go back and reinstate the ballistic missile defense program that was taken out," Dick Cheney said. "Obama took it out to appease Putin." Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., agreed that "we should definitely revisit missile defense." Ditto Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

The suggestion is odd for several reasons. One is that missile defense would be useless against either a ground assault by Russia or a covert effort to foment rebellion against the Kiev government. Another is that the small anti-missile system Bush had in mind was not designed to counter the Russian nuclear arsenal.

"In fact, it's just not even logically possible for it to be aimed at Russia, given how Russia could overwhelm it," noted White House press secretary Dana Perino in 2008. "The purpose of missile defense is to protect our European allies from any rogue threats, such as a missile from Iran."

But the hawks have a problem. They have a pathological need and a political incentive to fault President Barack Obama for timidity on Ukraine. At the same time, they must distract attention from the fact that they don't actually propose to do anything likely to affect Putin's behavior.

Invoking missile defense allows a pretense of toughness, even if it's only a millimeter deep. It also lets them claim that Ukraine would be intact if only Obama had not invited Russian aggression. Their arguments, however, are a masterpiece of irrelevance.

The case rests on fictions, starting with the claim that he abandoned missile defense in Europe in a naive attempt to pacify the Russians. It's true that the Kremlin denounced the Bush plan. But that was not the reason for the change. The reason was that the system didn't look as though it would be adequate for its assigned task of shooting down Iranian ballistic missiles.

Obama actually didn't abandon missile defense in Europe. Instead, he replaced the Bush plan, which relied on equipment that hadn't been tested, with one making use of existing weapons. Unlike the original program, says Ohio Wesleyan University political scientist Sean Kay, Obama's "is based on proven and capable technology."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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