President Obama’s recent decision to scrap plans for an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic was the price Russia demanded for its cooperation with the young, inexperienced president on national security issues.
Mr. Obama ignored the first rule of international diplomacy: Don’t give away your bargaining chips unless you get something in return. He also sent a signal of weakness by appearing to knuckle under to Russian bullying.
The president was looking to improve U.S. relations with Russia to win its support on turning up the pressure on Iran’s nuclear weapons buildup and for a new strategic nuclear arms agreement with Moscow.
But Russia was giving Mr. Obama’s olive-branch diplomacy the cold shoulder as long as the U.S. insisted on implementing George W. Bush-era plans for long-range missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic as part of a security system to protect its European allies.
Russia began playing hardball the day after Mr. Obama’s election when President Dmitry Medvedev declared he was ordering the deployment of Iskander missiles on its border with Poland in response to the U.S. move.
But no sooner had Mr. Obama abandoned U.S. plans for the missile defense system than Moscow announced it was dropping its plans to deploy the interceptors.
Clearly, the United States was seen backing away from that threat, and needless to say, the Kremlin was delighted by Mr. Obama’s strategic pullback.
Veteran national security strategists now wonder whether his actions sent the wrong message, which will only encourage Russian strong-arm tactics in future negotiations and policy disputes.
“I think that Obama has undoubtedly improved the mood with Russia and, provided that he doesn’t encourage … Russian bullying behavior in the future, that could be a good thing. But it’s too soon to declare that this has improved measurably better policy outcomes,” said military analyst Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution.
“I do think it is important to send Russia the message that it doesn’t have a veto over the nature of our future defense cooperation with new NATO states,” Mr. O’Hanlon told me.
Last month’s decision to abruptly abandon the anti-missile plan drew criticism from members of Congress and European officials and critics, who complained that Mr. Obama had pulled the rug out from under the Poles and Czechs, who had stuck their necks out in the agreement in the face of threats from the Russian bear.
A popular Warsaw tabloid ran a Page One headline declaring “How Naive We Were. Betrayal! U.S.A. Sold Us to Russia and Stabbed Us in the Back.”
Other Polish reaction was mixed, but the paper echoed much of the country’s response to Mr. Obama’s action.
Polish President Lech Kacznski was quoted as saying Mr. Obama’s action had left Poland in a “gray zone” between the Kremlin and Western Europe.
An editorial in a Prague newspaper said, “An ally we rely on has betrayed us, and exchanged us for its own, better relations with Russia, of which we are rightly afraid.”
The administration argued that the original rationale for the anti-missile systems had become inoperable under a new intelligence assessment of Iran’s short- and intermediate-range missiles that showed a sea-based Aegis missile system could be just as effective in protecting our allies.
But this was really all about Russia, not the reach of Iranian missiles. “What has really agitated Russia was not that the sites were for missile defense, but that they were an American presence in former Warsaw Pact countries, Russia’s now-defunct sphere of influence,” Mr. Bush’s former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton wrote two weeks ago in The Washington Times.
Mr. Obama’s eagerness to please the Russians in the high-stakes national security game raises broader questions about how tough he will be in the face of the growing Iranian missile threat in the Middle East and Europe.
Until now, he has softened his rhetoric toward the Iranian regime in his bid to open a dialogue with the rogue nation, which is determined to soon become a major nuclear power.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has taken a much tougher stance toward Iran’s nuclear standoff amid reports that he has grown impatient with Mr. Obama’s seemingly endless engagement policy.
“We supported President Obama’s extended hand to Iran’s leaders, but this hand cannot remain extended indefinitely with leaders who do not respond,” Mr. Sarkozy said at a meeting in Berlin last month with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He further sharpened his rhetoric about Iran’s continued intransigence at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in what “seemed to be a challenge to Obama, questioning whether it was worthwhile to keep waiting for a return gesture,” The Washington Post reported recently. “Meanwhile, [Iran’s nuclear] centrifuges keep on turning,” Mr. Sarkozy remarked.
Meantime, as Iran continues to move full speed ahead on its nuclear weapons development, Mr. Obama wants to terminate or curtail a number of U.S. anti-missile research efforts as part of $1.6 billion in cuts to the program that in the end is our ultimate strategic safeguard.
Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.