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Published: Saturday, 2/13/2010

Costly defense

PRESIDENT Obama appears to be putting negotiation of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia in jeopardy in the name of installing a missile system in Romania.

The previous START negotiations with the old Soviet Union were launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Signed in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush, the pact expired last December. Negotiations toward a new treaty, with deeper arms cuts on both sides, have been under way between Russia and the United States for some time.

Approval of a new treaty would be consistent with Mr. Obama's policy emphasis on making the world safer by reducing the number of weapons of mass destruction held by the United States, Russia, and other nuclear powers.

Mr. Obama has been looking forward to signing a new START accord with Russia. At one point he had hopes of doing so at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December. Negotiations have been said to be proceeding smoothly.

Now, Mr. Obama has thrown a monkey wrench into the talks by obtaining the agreement of Romania to install missile defense facilities on its territory.

Since 2004 Romania, a former partner in the Warsaw Pact, has been a member of NATO, which provides a strong guarantee of its security. It is also considered one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, calling into question its reliability in preserving the security of any valuable weapons put into its hands.

Russia reacted predictably to Romanian President Traian Basescu's announcement last week of the new missile agreement with the United States. Gen. Nikolai Makarov, the chief of Russia's military staff, said the step would hold up the START negotiations.

Is this a move by Mr. Obama to try to head off criticism of his administration's security posture, or is it just a case of mistaken priorities? If the President is willing to abandon a new strategic arms treaty with Russia to increase protection of Romania, or to fend off political criticism of his administration, this missile ploy makes no sense.

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