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U.S., Russia at Odds over Increasingly Unpopular White House Plans for Missile System in Eastern Europe

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President Bush hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday at the Bush family estate in Maine. Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation magazine and MIT professor and former Pentagon adviser Theodore Postol address the growing rift over U.S. plans for a so-called “missile defense” system in eastern Europe, which some see as a direct threat to Iran. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, yesterday. The 24-hour visit was intended to cool heightening tensions in U.S.-Russian relations. Topping the agenda, White House plans to build a missile defense system in Central Europe, Iran’s nuclear program, independence for Kosovo and contrasting views on democracy. After a morning fishing trip with Bush’s father, the two presidents emerged to address reporters.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Through the course of our relationship, there had been times when we’ve agreed on issues and there’s been times where we haven’t agreed on issues. But one thing I found about Vladimir Putin is that he is consistent, transparent, honest, and is an easy man to discuss, you know, our opportunities and problems with.

AMY GOODMAN: President Putin, the only world leader invited by Bush to stay with him at the main oceanfront estate, said the two leaders are seeking to resolve their differences. He thanked Bush for his hospitality.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] And I was pleased to know that we are seeking the points of coincidence in our positions, and very frequently we do found them. And I am very grateful to the Bush family for this very warm, homely atmosphere around this meeting, and we appreciate it very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Putin repeated his earlier suggestion the United States use a Soviet-era early warning radar system in Azerbaijan as a substitute for the radar and interceptors the White House wants to place in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia has strongly opposed U.S. plans to base parts of the proposed missile defense shield near Russia’s borders and recently warned it might target its missiles towards Europe in retaliation.

On Iran, Bush said he and Putin share concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. However, the two leaders don’t see eye to eye on sanctions or even whether Iranian missiles currently pose a threat. As Putin arrived in Kennenbunkport Sunday, more than 1,500 people demonstrated nearby against the war in Iraq and ongoing Russian policy in Chechnya.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, longtime analyst on U.S.-Russian relations, joining us in our firehouse studio. Joining us from Boston is Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, former scientific and policy adviser to the Pentagon on nuclear weapons and related matters, including missile defense.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, let’s start with you. The significance of this trip?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, they’re calling it the “Lobster Summit.” Because of the nice atmospherics, I would call it the “PR Summit.” You know, they had nice personal atmospherics, but nothing came out of this in terms of any agreement that is going to really improve U.S.-Russian relations or benefit the world, because fundamentally it’s not about the personal relationship between Putin and Bush, though The Wall Street Journal must be having hysterics about Bush’s description of Putin as transparent and trustworthy and honest. They just accused him of killing people the other week.

But fundamentally, the two countries are at loggerheads over fundamental issues — you ticked off a few at the top: NATO expansion, missile defense, Iran, the question of sanctions, Kosovo and independence — and all of this, Amy, predates President Putin in many ways, because NATO expansion, which even someone like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who was a booster, now recognizes has created this atmosphere of a kind of Cold War. We are paying the price for that and other policies of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Postol, your response to what the Bush administration is proposing? Explain this so-called missile defense.

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, the missile defense that they’re talking about, that the Bush administration has proposed, is going to have a radar in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in northern Poland. Now, the administration has stated that this system could not engage Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles if they were fired toward the United States, and that does not appear to be true, if one accepts the capabilities of the system as described by the Missile Defense Agency. We’ve done an analysis that shows that this is not a true statement. And in fact, we’ve also looked a little bit at variants of the Putin proposal, and we find that placing radars much closer to the launch sites, that is to say to the postulated Iranian missile threat in Azerbaijan or in Turkey, would in fact do a much better job of actually achieving the defensive capability that the Bush administration states it wants to achieve.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, I mean, what’s going on here, Amy, is the Bush administration wants to deploy a technology that does not work against a threat that does not exist. And this is against the backdrop, most fundamentally, of the dismantling of an arms control and disarmament regime that the U.S. and Russia have constructed over the last 25, 30 years.

You know, global warming is a fundamental issue, but it is very hard to do a lot right now. Something we can do a lot about is, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, we can really begin to build down. Instead, the Bush administration withdrew the United States from the ABM Treaty, has basically enacted a false arms control treaty which would allow both countries to keep missiles in reserve. Six thousand long-range missiles are still on hair-trigger alert. This is folly.

And the other interesting thing, which Professor Postol didn’t mention, is with all the talk of democracy promotion in this country, what is overlooked is the fact that mayors in the Czech Republic where the radar sites will be based are opposed to this. They do not want to be embroiled in a conflictual U.S.-Russian relationship. I think that’s fundamental.

Finally, Congress, in its wisdom, has cut funding for some of this, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not want any part of it. They’ve called missile defense “pet rocks,” because it undermines our real security in pursuit of a fantasy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Postol, what’s the point of this system? What are they trying to accomplish?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think your earlier speakers, in my view, have correctly described the issues that need to be addressed politically. The problem that adds even more complexity to this issue is the completely unrealistic character of the technical system that the administration claims will do missile defense. In fact, my earlier statement was simply — it was caveated in a very important way. I said “if” the system components work as the Missile Defense Agency claims they would. In fact, these missile defense components will never work the way the Missile Defense Agency claims they would. But, in fact, the United States claims they would work, and the Russians, at some level, have taken us at our word. So we’ve got the worst of both worlds. We’ve got a system that the Russians treat or perceive or treat politically as if it has some capability, which means this raises big political questions of the kind that have been addressed by your other commentators, and at the same time we have a system that really will provide no realistic defensive capability.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think Putin is clever. I mean, he sort of — what he’s trying to do with his gambit about Azerbaijan — and now, the other day, he raised the question of citing missile defense technology in southern Russia — is to delay. I think that’s what’s happening here.

I think, Amy, there’s another point here. Some of the fear about bringing this technology into the Czech Republic and Poland would not be as fierce if there wasn’t a sense of a solemn promise broken about NATO expansion. What’s ironic is that this summit at Kennebunkport, the first foreign leader invited to the Bush family compound, suggests that the role Papa Bush is playing in this — because Papa Bush, one, ended the Cold War officially in 1989 at the Malta summit, a more productive summit with Gorbachev, and, two, made a solemn promise to Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. So I think you have in this administration, you see the Cheney wing, you see sort of the Bush wing, and now you see the reassertion of Papa Bush and a little bit of the Reagan crowd, because Papa Bush doesn’t want to lose the legacy of having ended the Cold War. But the real anger is that these missile technologies are encroaching further and further eastward into what were Warsaw Pact countries. And you ask, at the end of the Cold War, why is the military alliance moving eastward? These are fundamental questions that are at the heart of this conflictual relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Postol, you’re a professor at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You’ve been very critical of your own university for its role in the development of so-called missile defense. It’s gotten something like $70 million to do this. Can you explain what’s happening at MIT and your thoughts on it?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, the problem at MIT is, I think, the institution is too closely tied to a laboratory they operate that has well over $600 million a year in revenues that MIT is in one way or another benefiting from. And the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which is this separate institution, was involved in concealing the failure of a very critical missile defense experiment, which was supposed to show whether or not the current system could tell the difference between a basketball-sized balloon and warheads, and the system was unable to do this. So this basically means that in no realistic combat situation that is imaginable, the system has no chance of working. The MIT Corporation, including its board of directors, known as the Executive Committee, have been involved, in my opinion — in my opinion, have been involved in concealing this from the Congress and the American people. And I’ve been pursuing this matter, and I think the Congress will almost certainly be picking up on this.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about your debunking of, in 1991 after the Gulf War, the what was considered the star at the time, the Patriot missiles, and how successful they were in dealing with taking out the scuds. You came to a very different conclusion that so outraged Raytheon, that made the Patriot missile, and the Pentagon, that they classified your findings, your studying of the videotape. Explain what you found.

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, first of all, classifying the public information is not consistent with a democratic process, and I did not acquiesce to their claims. But what my colleagues and I found is that the Patriot was essentially a total failure in the Gulf War of 1991. This is now widely accepted as truth. When we first raised the question, the U.S. Army had told the Congress that the Patriot was 96 percent effective in the Gulf War of 1991. We found that it almost certainly failed to intercept a single scud warhead in the entire war.

So this was an important result, not so much because of its implications for the war of 1991, since very little was done in terms of military consequence from the incoming scuds, but it was very important in the political debate that followed, where people were trying to make this falsely represented success into an argument for a complete and comprehensive missile defense that would be global.

And so, there are two levels to this, like in many situations: There’s a political level and a technical level. And today I’ve been focusing on the technical level, because I think you have very competent people on this panel who can speak to the political level. So I’m just trying to add reality to the discussion, in terms of the technical possibilities.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has Putin proposed, Professor Postol?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, what Putin proposed — and I think it’s a fluid proposal, so the details are not exactly important — he proposed to make a large early warning radar, that is currently operating in Azerbaijan and looks out over Iran, available to the United States for monitoring Iranian missile tests. Now, this radar is not an ideal radar for monitoring missile defense tests, but it actually would do a pretty good job in assisting a missile defense of the kind that the United States has proposed for Europe in acquiring attacking warheads so that they could be engaged. I’m not arguing this is a good idea. I’m just simply explaining that this radar could play a very useful practical role. So I was in Washington last week, and all of the people are repeating these arguments that sound plausible but have no basis, that somehow this radar is inappropriate. It’s a fine radar for that purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, could this escalate an arms race with Iran concerned about this on the border?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, it’s very possible, Amy. I think that’s why Russia is so keen — and again, there was no agreement, I think, between Bush and Putin on Iran and the question of more sanctions. Russia is at the crossroads between sort of the West and Islamic civilization and Iran, and it is very eager to avoid a heightening of sanctions and a heightening of tension, because they believe that there is the possibility of a grand bargain and that sanctions will abet hardliners inside Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the protests against the war in Iraq that were taking place nearby Kennebunkport, the estate where the Bushes and Putin were meeting, and also Russia’s role in Chechnya?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. This is one of the most brutal civil wars that still goes underreported, partly because of Russia’s clampdown on an independent press. Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was assassinated last year partly because of her reporting on Chechnya, was one of the few who could report. I think that Putin dangerously often tries to link it to the fight against international terrorism, when in fact it really is a civil war.

Related to that, Amy, the status of independent journalists is still grim. Interestingly, Bush did not bring up the status of democracy on a day in which he commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, when we learn more about torture by the United States in secret sites in the New Europe. No wonder that Bush didn’t want to bring attention to that. But the best news is that inside Russia, journalists are working together in solidarity. Last month in the Siberian city of Tomsk, one TV station issued a protest letter in defense of the independent media. Two thousand or more journalists have already signed on. So you’re beginning to see protest inside, which in my view is always the most effective: Russian journalists defending their own rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, thanks so much for joining us, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, longtime analyst on U.S.-Russian relations. Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at MIT.

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