John Kirby: Trump's recent John Bolton retweet about Obama not believing in national missile defense is completely inaccurate
Obama did a lot to ensure our nation's safety by taking a layered approach to missile defenses across continents, he writes
Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who served as a spokesman for both the state and defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump told reporters that, despite the threat from North Korea, “The people of this country should be very comfortable. The people of our country are safe.”
However, this follows Trump’s ominous retweet of Ambassador John Bolton on Wednesday, who wrote: “Our country & civilians are vulnerable today because @BarackObama did not believe in national missile defense. Let’s never forget that.”
This tweet in completely inaccurate. We are not as vulnerable as Bolton implies, and Obama did quite a lot to shore up our defenses against a possible attack.
But let’s unpack this further.
First, our commander in chief is basically saying that he has little confidence in our nation’s missile defense. One supposes Trump could earn brownie points here for candor. But it’s difficult to see, especially in light of the threats coming from Pyongyang, how this sort of candor serves the national interest. Kim Jong Un is probably delighted to hear Trump thinks we are vulnerable.
Except we’re not. The tweet is divorced from fact. On Thursday, he confirmed as much when he told reporters that, despite the threat from North Korea, “The people of this country should be very comfortable. The people of our country are safe.”
Listen to what the director of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, just said at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama: “We absolutely believe that the currently deployed ballistic missile defense system can meet today’s threat.”
And Greaves made it clear he has the data to back it all up. “We have done the analysis, we’ve built the systems, we’ve done the modeling simulation, and, oh by the way, we have done the testing,” he said.
This seems pretty declarative to me, so I’m going to take the general’s word for it. What’s disconcerting is that Trump – who likes to defer to military expertise – doesn’t appear willing to do so from his own MDA director.
Some will say that retweets aren’t endorsements and that just because the President retweeted it doesn’t mean he was making a policy determination.
It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t included a little “RT ≠ endorsement” tag on his profile. If Trump retweets something, it’s fair game for us to assume he wanted us to know about it and that he endorses it.
So the President of the United States doesn’t have confidence in our missile defenses. The general in charge of those same defenses does.
Let’s not forget that.
Second, it’s just flat-out wrong to say Obama didn’t believe in missile defense.
It was Obama who presided over the development of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which provided a layered approach to missile defenses across the continent in response to the growing ballistic missile threat posed by Iran. EPAA resulted in specially-equipped Navy missile defense destroyers based in Spain, the deployment of the TPY-2 – or missile defense radar – to Turkey and the placement of Aegis air defenses in Poland and Romania.
NATO leaders officially declared an Initial Operational Capability of NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense system in the summer of 2016, meaning that certain elements of the EPAA were then integrated under NATO command and control.
Obama was also deeply committed to providing Israel with layered missile defense centered around Iron Dome, a mobile all-weather air defense system, and he sought ways to enable our Gulf allies to acquire missile defense systems as well.
In response to the North Korean threat, Obama increased the number of ballistic missile interceptors in Greely, Alaska, and sent an additional TPY-2 radar to Japan. He deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Guam, based missile defense destroyers in Japan, and late last year deployed an additional THAAD system to South Korea. THAAD is a regional anti-ballistic missile system designed to shoot down incoming missiles during their re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Of course, Obama’s missile defense policy wasn’t without flaws. Early on in his administration, he reversed President George W. Bush’s decision to deploy air defense systems to the Czech Republic and ballistic missile interceptors to Poland, and he presided over significant cuts to MDA’s budget. Those cuts continue to have a deleterious effect on critical research and development.
And it’s certainly true that Trump inherited a more serious threat from Pyongyang than Obama did from Bush. No one can argue that we’ve effectively deterred Kim from pursuing these dangerous capabilities.
At the same time, no one can argue that Obama “did not believe” in missile defense.
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As Abel Romero, the director of government relations at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, wrote back in January, “President Obama leaves behind a significant missile defense legacy, having spurred the development and deployment of missile defense systems in Europe, Asia and the Middle East during his presidency. Obama’s embrace of missile defense as a component of foreign policy has led to bipartisan support of an issue that had largely been championed by the Republican Party for decades.”
Let’s never forget that either.