Let's pretend

The Baltimore Sun

What to be skeptical about: the proposal by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to use a Russian radar site in Azerbaijan as an outpost of America's missile defense system.

What to be even more skeptical about: America's missile defense system.

Mr. Putin has been railing against plans by the Bush administration to install a radar station in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland, which he portrays as provocations aimed more at Russia than at Iran or some other Middle Eastern nation. He threatened to re-target Russia's missiles against European cities - which may have been a ploy to try to divide Western Europe and the U.S., but if it was, it went over very poorly with its intended audience. Then, last week, he made his surprise suggestion: Why not work together in Azerbaijan? Maybe, he added, the interceptors could be set up in Turkey or Iraq, or be stationed at sea.

Let's pretend for a moment that the missile defense system is a workable idea. The Russian proposal, in that case, makes a small amount of sense. Because Azerbaijan borders on Iran, radar there would be able quickly to pick out a hostile missile; a problem is that Azerbaijan would be almost as quickly overflown and it would be difficult to hit the offending missile if the only guidance came from its rear. But that Moscow has even opened the door to thinking about cooperation with the U.S. comes close to being a triumph for Washington.

Now, let's drop the pretense. The missile defense system has to be one of Washington's all-time boondoggles. It costs about $10 billion a year. Tests have overwhelmingly been failures, except those that were so trumped up they were next to meaningless. Just last month, a test was declared a "no test" by the Missile Defense Agency, because the target missile didn't end up in the right part of the sky to get picked off.

Mr. Putin must know all this. There are probably people around President Bush who know it, too. Indeed, someday in the distant future, the U.S. may have a functioning system - but it's important to understand that the mode at the moment is strictly rhetorical (and contractual, of course). The Russians may have suggested Azerbaijan as a distraction, or to make it harder for the U.S. to move forward against popular opinion in the Czech Republic and Poland. It may be tied in with a recent tilt by Moscow in favor of Azerbaijan in its long-simmering dispute with Armenia, which in turn has to be seen in the context of Azerbaijan's abundant and westward-flowing Caspian oil.

Any opportunity to work together with Moscow, instead of against it, would be welcome - if only the missile defense shield were something worth working on.

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