President Obama made waves today when he drew back on a Bush-era promise to build a missile defense shield around Eastern Europe, angering some in Poland and the Czech Republic and puzzling many back home. Officially, the Obama administration is only shifting tactics, focusing more on short- to mid-range missiles instead of the long-range missiles the original system would have been designed against. But many saw the move for what it was: a capitulation to Russian demands that the shield be scrapped in hopes of currying favor for Iran negotiations.
Poland’s Prime Minister reportedly refused to take calls from the U.S. State Department for a few hours, and former Polish President Lech Walesa was withering in his criticism, saying:
America has always cared only about its own interests, and those of others only serve the US. Now we have another example of this … I can see what kind of policy the Obama administration is pursuing towards this part of Europe. We should reconsider our approach to the United States.
There’s a concern across Eastern Europe that the move spells trouble for the former Soviet-bloc nations, not necessarily with Iran (whom the IAEA today admitted is capable of building an atomic bomb), but with Russia, to whom the measure is designed to directly appeal. The Times of London captures this growing concern:
By trading the loyalty of Poland and the Czech Republic to satisfy Russia’s security concerns, the United States is signalling that it no longer contests Moscow’s right to assert its interests in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine and Georgia’s chances of entering Nato over Russian objections have diminished further. The timing is disastrous for Ukraine in particular, given the Kremlin’s determination to reverse the pro-Western Orange Revolution and ensure victory for a pro-Russian candidate at presidential elections in January.
The Baltic States, already in Nato, will be feeling a chill as they ponder an even more assertive Russia. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been among the Kremlin’s most vocal critics but Nato’s new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has declared a “true strategic partnership” with Russia his top priority.
The Bush Administration delighted in emphasising relations with the “new Europe” of former Soviet bloc countries, often at the expense of recalcitrant “old Europe” of Germany and France on foreign policy.
Mr Obama has shown that the US is no longer playing that game. He wants Russian help on Afghanistan and Iran and is leaving Europe to resolve its own relationship with Moscow on everything from energy security to historical grievances.
The Kremlin can barely believe its good fortune. Mr Obama has pressed the “reset” button to improve relations without obtaining anything more than permission for US aircraft to cross Russian airspace on resupply operations for troops in Afghanistan.
Here in America, Republican politicians were quick to jump on the downplaying of Iran’s threat and the abandonment of staunch American allies. But even some members of Obama’s party were asking, what exactly are we getting out of this? The hope is that the move will spur Russia to action in dealing with Iran and its nuclear program. Russia, along with China, has steadfastly refused to consider any new sanctions on Iran, and Obama is gambling that this accession to Russian demands will be a gesture of good faith that will inspire further Russian involvement.
I don’t believe that America should police the world or be responsible for the defense of every nation – we are cash-strapped and militarily overextended, and we simply can’t do it all. However, I do believe in supporting our allies, and this very sudden about-face on the missile defense shield leaves many nations in Eastern Europe feeling abandoned by Washington to the bear of Moscow, who coincidentally is looking more and more like it wants to reassert itself in old and new spheres of influence.
Russian leaders are no doubt high-fiving themselves and downing the vodka in celebration of Obama’s backing down. They essentially had to do absolutely nothing to secure this political victory and whether they end up helping us or not, they’ll feel emboldened to do whatever the hell they want in Georgia, Ukraine, and other nations. Working to build international consensus is a good goal, but unilaterally and unconditionally caving in to Russian demands is not. This is an ill-advised move with a payoff that’s highly questionable.
But the biggest punch to the gut for Eastern Europe is that the announcement comes on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Unbelievable and yet sadly true. Could the administration possibly be any more tone-deaf or diplomatically inept?