The reluctant convert – Barack Obama (2009–2012)
Barack Obama took office in January 2009, much like the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, determined to reduce the defence budget, refresh US foreign policy and concentrate his time and energy on his domestic agenda. Obama looked set to decrease funding for BMD, recalibrate the programme and relegate it in importance, in order to pursue a ‘more humble’ approach to world affairs than his predecessor. With Democrats in control of Congress, questions remaining about the efficacy of various BMD technologies and with Russian antagonism about US BMD plans mounting, it appeared that Obama might be able to rationalise the programme that he had inherited from George W. Bush, in order to fulfil his wider policy agenda. However, and despite his pre-election determination to downgrade the BMD programme, during his first term Barack Obama oversaw what amounted to considerable continuity in US missile defence plans and capabilities. The replacement of the Third Site with the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) for missile defence in Europe looked set to be a far more comprehensive system than that envisaged by the Bush Administration. The February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defence Review (BMDR) outlined a plan whereby US BMD assets could be deployed all over the world in ever-increasing numbers, and in coordination with US allies. BMD budget requests were retained at levels just below those requested under George W. Bush, and more than double those under Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Lastly, the Obama Administration refused to accept any limits on US BMD plans as part of the negotiations over New START – a key administration priority – and the centrepiece of the US-Russian reset, and instead courted the possibility of missile defence cooperation with Moscow as the nuclear threat from Iran began to mount. As such, President Obama essentially presided over a continuation and in some cases expansion of the BMD programme that he had inherited, despite it appearing to undermine wider policy agendas. Consequently, as the US approached the 2012 presidential elections, the ballistic missile defence programme was alive, well and thriving. The evolution of policy under Obama raises a number of interesting questions. First, why did Obama continue to spend vast sums of money on BMD despite campaign pledges to cut funding, rein the programme in and focus on
other means of addressing the threat from proliferation? Second, why did Obama refuse to use BMD as a bargaining chip with Russia, even though US BMD plans were seen as one of the main impediments to the reset and a programme of bilateral nuclear arms reductions? Finally, why did Obama appear to outline a bigger BMD plan for Europe than the Bush Administration, and commit his own administration to deploying even more components of this system throughout the globe? At least part of the answer to these questions was the importance of the domestic political pressures brought to bear on policy during this period, but it also reflected a growing sense of path dependence based on the acceptance that the requirements of US security, and the means the address these requirements, had changed substantially since 1989.