The Obama Administration has now announced a policy shift expected ever since it took office: the cancellation of U.S. plans to put missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. There are two good arguments that can be made for this step, but there’s a counter-argument that makes it most worrisome.
Nominally, the missile defenses were planned to counter a possible Iranian missile attack on Europe. As such, and as the administration points out, they were dealing with a rather low-likelihood scenario. When President Barack Obama said, "Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," that is probably true in the strict sense of the word.
(By the way, one of the systems being used is the U.S.-Israel Arrow, a good example of the value of the strategic partnership between the two countries).
The second argument for the policy shift is that it will make Russia happy. The Russians view Central Europe, and countries like Poland and the Czech Republic as well as all the other states which once made up the Soviet Union or its satellite states, as their sphere of influence. For the United States to put missiles in two of those countries, even with the eager agreement of their governments, was seen as trespassing.
Here, though, questions can be raised. The most immediate reason why the United States would want to make the Russians happy is to get their cooperation on increased sanctions against Iran. With some other administration, one might suspect there is a secret deal to do so: a missiles for sanctions trade.
With the Obama Administration, however, unilateral concessions (we give now, show we are nice guys, and so you may give us something in future) seem to prevail and I doubt if there is any such arrangement. Indeed, I’ll bet that after swallowing this gift, Moscow will continue to oppose higher sanctions against Iran and will sabotage any that are put into place.
Governments are ill advised to give something for nothing.
The third issue is the effect on Central Europe itself. The Poles and Czechs took a real risk in agreeing to host the missiles. (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say they will get missiles some time after 2015 under the new plan but the Russians don’t seem worried this will ever happen.)
The suspicion in places like Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as those like Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, and a dozen other countries, is that the United States (or at least this president) won’t protect them from the Russian bear. To some extent, at least, they saw this small American military presence as insurance against Russian threats and see losing it as making them more vulnerable.
Republican critics of the administration stressed this aspect. For example, former presidential candidate Senator John McCain responded that this step "has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe." Senator Jon Kyl added: "The message the administration sends today is clear: The United States will not stand behind its friends and views 're-setting' relations with Russia more important."
This, too, is correct. The problem is not so much this specific decision but the context of the administration’s overall philosophy and behavior.
In addition, the Russians are putting a lot of pressure on neighbors that is rarely reported in the Western media: using energy supply leverage as blackmail, buying up strategic industries, making threats, interpreting history to say these countries should be part of Russia or under its sway, backing subversive forces, acting as protector of ethnic Russians in other countries, and making territorial claims.
A number of top Central European former policymakers thus addressed an open letter to Obama asking for his help in July and expressing their fear of Russian expansionism. To my knowledge, there has been no private response or public reassurance by the White House.
The Russians are not impressed at all by Obama and view him as a weak leader who can be stepped on. What the Obama Administration doesn’t understand regarding this point is that if Moscow views him as someone ready to give in on European issues they will also disregard his wishes on the Iranian problem.
So here’s a question: If the Russians continue to reject higher sanctions against Iran, how will the administration respond?
The White House may be right on the missile defense in terms of its technical merits but the Republican critics may be right on the political and psychological effect for Russia’s neighbors of this decision to cancel the missile deployment.
Oh, by the way, Central Europeans will notice--even if Americans don't--that this step comes precisely on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, the act of aggression which most truly symbollizes the Russian claim to their countries as slaves or satellites. The Russian government is justifying this deed today, an action integrally linked to its continuing view of Central Europe as its property. This was a major public relations' mistake by the Obama Adminitration which adds insult to injury for the Poles and Czechs.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: