Hand Missile Defense to Medvedev’s Kremlin

George W. Bush is trying to engage Vladimir Putin in a round of lame duck diplomacy before both of them step down as president, as implied by a trip by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Moscow last week.

The obsession of all outgoing leaders with their legacies on foreign policy is understandable, and Putin is in a much more enviable position than Bush in this area. But lame duck diplomacy has its perils. It is hard to make the right judgment when facing time constraints.

Bush dispatched Rice and Gates to Moscow after writing a sweeping letter to Putin that outlined a range of proposals on a planned U.S. missile-defense shield and a framework for strategic nuclear reductions. The proposals are designed to test Russia’s readiness to engage the United States constructively by offering small but meaningful steps to accommodate Russia’s concerns on missile defense and the new strategic framework to replace the START I treaty after it expires next year. Bush’s goal is to lock the new Russian leadership into a set of agreements while his friend Putin is still around as president and then prime minister.

The United States has proposed allowing Russian monitors onto missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic to confirm that neither are being used against Russia. Russian access to the sites would be have to be approved by the Polish and Czech authorities.

While the U.S. proposals are welcome, Moscow should pause before accepting them. Striking a missile-defense deal now would mean that Russia has accepted U.S. arguments at a time when the fate of this system is still up in the air. A John McCain administration would most likely continue with the deployment plans, and in this scenario a binding agreement on confidence-building measures would certainly help. A Barack Obama administration, however, might cancel the program altogether.

The same applies to future strategic reductions. What Bush is offering is welcome and might even hedge some risks of a McCain presidency, but it does not go far enough. Obama’s sweeping nuclear reductions agenda, meanwhile, appears to be much more in line with Russia’s interests.

Putin should avoid signing a last-minute deal with Bush. Putin’s own record in lame duck diplomacy is poor — in 2000, hoping to get a better deal from Bush, he spurned then-President Bill Clinton’s smart plan to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a judgment he came to regret.

This time around, Putin should defer the decision to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and his new team.

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