A Turkish general once said: "The problem with having the Americans as your allies is you never know when they'll turn around and stab themselves in the back."
On the issue of ballistic missile defense, the Obama administration may be on the verge of knifing not only ourselves, but two loyal European allies as well.
Ten months ago, the United States and NATO solemnly promised Poland and the Czech Republic to deploy missile defense systems on their territory. Warsaw and Prague agreed to the deployment as a means to protect themselves from the emerging nuclear threat posed by Iran.
Of course, the decision made by our Eastern European allies encompassed more than just the desire to defend their citizens against Iran. The Poles and Czechs saw it as a test case of the American and NATO commitment to their defense against a bullying Russia.
Moscow has threatened both countries with offensive nuclear missiles — a breathtakingly aggressive response to purely defensive weapons intended for protection from Iran — all for the purpose of asserting a false claim of influence over the affairs of two NATO allies.
The Obama administration appears not to understand what is at stake.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that the U.S. will now "reconsider" the decision to proceed with building the missile sites. The administration wants to link the fulfillment of a commitment already made to Poland and the Czech Republic to future Russian cooperation on Iran.
This would be a huge blunder. Not only would it signal to Warsaw and Prague that a done deal in NATO is being reopened, with the understandable conclusion that the U.S. is selling two allies down the river to Moscow. It also would commit a classic negotiating mistake.
Any decision to delay the deployment of the missile defense sites would inevitably slow preparations, even if the decision was made later to proceed. Russia can pocket the delay and then revert to its old strategy of obfuscation, cooperating only as much as is necessary to kill the missile sites in Eastern Europe, but not enough to actually stop the nuclear program in Iran.
The long-range damage, though, would be to the credibility of the NATO alliance itself. If Russia succeeds in vetoing the missile defense decision, then NATO will inevitably be seen as a two-tier alliance — one for members outside Russia´s sphere of influence and another for those inside it. Moscow´s geopolitical claim to special consideration in Poland, the Czech Republic and Baltic States will be confirmed. After all, what business is it of Russia if these countries want to protect themselves from Iran?
Russia has trumped up a phony security claim. The missile defense interceptors have no capability against Russian missiles, and the Russians know it. By even hinting that the missile defense sites are a bargaining chip, America would be conceding Russia´s claim of special rights.
You can understand why the Russians feel so confident that intimidation works. They invaded Georgia last year with no more than perfunctory opposition from NATO and the U.S. They cut off energy supplies to Ukraine, and the Europeans put as much if not more pressure on Ukraine than on Russia to restart them. Moscow makes all kinds of specious claims in the Arctic, and the world yawns.
The purpose of this strategic game is to make Russia´s neighbors feel so insecure that they come to believe only Moscow´s beneficence can protect them. While financial considerations were at play in Kyrgyzstan´s decision to shut down the U.S. air base in Manas that serves NATO´s Afghanistan operations, so too were geopolitical ones.
Like another country that kicked out the Americans — Uzbekistan — Kyrgyzstan drew the conclusion that American influence is waning in the region and that the Russians are now back as top dog in Central Asia. No doubt the Russians want Warsaw and Prague to draw the same conclusion.
There is more at stake in this missile defense decision than the protection of Europe from Iran. Also at stake is the very credibility of the NATO security guarantee to its members.
Russia´s bid to shut down these missile defense sites is a power play to split NATO and to frighten Eastern Europe into distancing itself from NATO and the West.
Moscow's hope is that Poland and the others will deem the Americans to be unreliable, and that accommodating Russia is the only safe path to security. The Obama administration had best remember this before it bargains away both Europe´s protection against Iran and the integrity of NATO.
• Kim Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (Heritage.org) and author of "Liberty´s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century" (2008).