The right-wing regimes of the “new Europe” — that is, the post-Soviet governments in eastern Europe that emerged, during the Bush administration, as the staunchest backers of American empire — are yelping over the decision by the Obama administration to cancel Bush-era plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
For Obama, who was never enthusiastic about the plan, it’s a strong indication that he’s serious about rebuilding relations with Russia. And the decision may have implications for Iran policy, too.
In an article entited: “U.S. to Shelve Nuclear Missile Shield,” the Wall Street Journal reports today:
“The White House will shelve Bush administration plans to build a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to people familiar with the matter, a move likely to cheer Moscow and roil the security debate in Europe.
“The U.S. will base its decision on a determination that Iran’s long-range missile program has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals, according to current and former U.S. officials. The findings, expected to be completed as early as next week following a 60-day review ordered by President Barack Obama, would be a major reversal from the Bush administration, which pushed aggressively to begin construction of the Eastern European system before leaving office in January…
“But the decision to shelve the defense system is all but certain to raise alarms in Eastern Europe, where officials have expressed concerns that the White House’s effort to ‘reset’ relations with Moscow would come at the expense of U.S. allies in the former Soviet bloc.”
Predictably, the neoconservative Weekly Standard is outraged, calling it a “complete capitulation to Russia’s Vladimir Putin,” and adding:
“The consequences of this action in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine and in other countries that feel vulnerable to Russian power, will be disastrous. It is a major American retreat in the face of Russian bullying. And we will get absolutely nothing for it.”
The Standard does pick up on the link to Iran, saying that:
“The Obama administration, which is appeasing Russia in the hopes that Moscow will help put pressure on Iran, has made this mammoth concession just a few days after Moscow declared that it had no intention of supporting sanctions against Iran.”
It’s true that, earlier this week, President Medvedev of Russia hinted that Moscow might not look unfavorably on new sanctions against Iran, saying:
“Sanctions are not very effective on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right.”
And earlier this year, there were reports that Obama was seeking to obtain a quid pro quo from Moscow, offering to cancel the missile defense system in exchange for Russia’s support on Iran. It’s unlikely, however, that Russia will go along with truly harsh sanctions against Tehran, despite Medvedev’s comments. More likely, the Russian president was trying to make Iran a bit more nervous as it enters talks with the P5 + 1, which includes both Russia and the United States.
At the American Enterprise Institute, too, Gary Schmitt is unhappy:
“It looks like not only have we hit the reset button when it comes to Russia, but now with our friends in Central Europe–except this time, it’s a big fat ‘no thank you’ for your willingness to stick your neck out to protect allies.”
The London Times flips out:
“Vladimir Putin could be forgiven for having a celebratory shot of vodka with breakfast this morning at news that President Obama plans to abandon America’s missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.
“His implacable opposition to the project has paid off, leaving the Kremlin emboldened in its drive to re-establish a strategic ‘sphere of privileged interests’ over Russia’s former Soviet satellites.
“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.”
And it adds:
“For Mr Putin, the lesson of today’s decision is clear. Intransigence pays dividends because the US and the European Union lack the patience or determination to face Moscow down. That is a lesson that send alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power of Russia’s former Soviet dominions.”
The truth is that the decision to put a missile defense system was both stupid and needlessly provocative. Stupid, because the system doesn’t work and because the threat from Iran is nonexistent. And provocative, because it was part of the Bush administration’s neo-Cold War effort to bolster and expand NATO, pressure Russia militarily in south and central Asia, back adventurist states such as Georgia, and otherwise poke the Russian bear with sharp sticks. Obama wants cooperation with Russia — on energy policy, on Iran, on terrorism, and above all on disarmament and de-nuclearization — and he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.
On Iran, the issue is not whether Russia will join in imposing sanctions on Iran, but whether Russia will join the United States is trying to solve the problem diplomatically. The plain fact is that it will be exceedingly difficult to get Iran to agree to a deal over its uranium enrichment program without Russia’s strong diplomatic involvement.
President Obama deserves high praise for this action.
UPDATE From the text of the White House announcement this morning:
“The United States … will be testing and updating a range of approaches for improving our sensors for missile defense. The new distributed interceptor and sensor architecture also does not require a single, large, fixed European radar that was to be located in the Czech Republic; this approach also uses different interceptor technology than the previous program, removing the need for a single field of 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. Therefore, the Secretary of Defense recommended that the United States no longer plan to move forward with that architecture. …
We also welcome Russian cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests.”