The inimitable Sen. Joe Biden has predicted that within six months of President-elect Barack Obama taking office, the world would see a major crisis, a test of the new president’s leadership. Many of us, who believe that Mr. Obama’s inexperience is an open invitation to the world’s trouble makers, completely agree with Mr. Biden on this one point.
But as it turned out, the world may not even have to wait that long for the anticipated crisis.
In Russia, Mr. Obama’s election is not being hailed as the dawn of a new age, as it is in much of the rest of the world. Instead, the media present it as evidence of America’s decline, and unless some other hostile power hurries up and gets there first, the Kremlin is where Mr. Obama’s first test will originate.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threw down the gauntlet to Mr. Obama on Nov. 5th when he gave his first state of Russia address. The speech was carefully timed to coincide with Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech, and while Mr. Medvedev chose not to mention Mr. Obama by name, he certainly did send him a message.
If the United States goes ahead with the installation of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic (the so-called third missile defense site), Russia will take countermeasures, so Mr. Medvedev said. This will come in the shape of Iskander short range missiles installed by Russia in Kaliningrad, a small military outpost of Russia located right on Europe’s border, between Poland and Lithuania. From this vantage point, the Russian missiles will allegedly be able to destroy the 10 American missile interceptors, which are scheduled to be deployed in Poland as part of the U.S. missile shield. Mr. Medvedev also threatened to install equipment to scramble the signals from the U.S. anti-missile system.
While the Russian leadership has previously made ominously growling noises on the subject of the “third site,” the Russian threat has ever been this specific. Thus the message to Mr. Obama is clear: Pursue the course set by the Bush administration at your peril and risk a military eruption in Europe. At the same time, the Russians are pursuing military cooperation with Venezuelan strong-man Hugo Chavez and arranging joint naval exercises in the backyard of the United States. The Russian gambit is strongly reminiscent of Cold War days.
Thus, while the U.S. government has assured the Russians that the missile defenses are not aimed at them and has offered to share missile defense technology in an effort to defuse the issue, Russia has only one familiar response - confrontation and provocation. This international bullying also serves as a handy way of distracting the Russian population from the country’s numerous problems.
How will the new president-elect respond?
After all, Mr. Obama has said he would talk to any world leader without precondition, so this could make for an interesting test case. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has already talked over the phone to Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, on the subject of missile defense.
Interestingly, the two sides have different understandings of what was said. Mr. Kaczynski understood Mr. Obama to confirm America’s commitment to honor the agreement, reached only a few months back between Poland and the United States. Mr. Obama’s advisors have denied he said any such thing. Given Mr. Obama’s record on being on both sides of numerous foreign policy issues during the campaign, the confusion is not surprising, but it is dangerous. From now on, what the president-elect says counts as policy and will have international repercussions.
The Russians, for their part, cite as evidence of Mr. Obama’s more malleable attitude his position on missile defense, as declared on his campaign website, which states that he supports missile defense if the technology is proven workable and can be demonstrated not to be threatening Russia. (In actual fact, both of these are true today, which only makes the Obama position more confusing.) If Mr. Obama stands by the Bush administration’s commitment on missile defense to the Polish government, he will show that he does indeed have the spine of steel that his vice presidential choice, Mr. Biden, spoke so eloquently of. He will have demonstrated reassuring courage and resolve to America’s friends and allies such as Poland.
If on the other hand, Mr. Obama backs down in the face of Russian pressure, he will have failed what will likely be his first real international test of leadership. The consequences of such a failure will be more challenges and more crises to come. The world is watching.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.