President Obama is making so many foreign-policy blunders that he is starting to make us yearn for the national-security acumen of the Carter administration. His official announcement scrapping the planned missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic was long expected but still landed with a thud. It is hard to remember a strategic choice that is so obviously wrong on so many levels.
The Kremlin is delighted. The United States unilaterally backed down in face of a Russian demand with no promise of reciprocity. This move decidedly strengthens Moscow’s hand without any appreciable gain for the United States. There is no reason to expect any gratitude. The Russian line will be that Mr. Obama made a pragmatic choice based on the faltering economy and his unwillingness to challenge mighty Moscow. It is a huge win for the Kremlin that adds to Russia’s current momentum and reinforces the president’s growing appearance of international impotence.
As usual, Moscow’s gain is Eastern Europe’s loss. Poland and the Czech Republic have a difficult recent history with Russia, by which we mean 40 years of communist military occupation and political repression. They knew Moscow would object to them hosting an American missile-defense system but decided to take the risk. Warsaw and Prague are good allies to America and have sent troops to assist the coalition efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserved better than a midnight call telling them “thanks, but no thanks.”
The White House picked an auspicious day to wave the white flag on missile defense. The president’s national-security team may say they didn’t notice that the announcement came on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, but everyone in Eastern Europe did. For an administration whose claims of heightened cultural sensitivity border on sanctimony, the timing was an unforgivable faux pas. The anniversary gift compounds the message that Washington is bent on courting Moscow regardless of the broader implications for global security.
Mr. Obama said he was concerned about the emerging missile threat from Iran, but it is hard to see how his new approach will cause any heartburn in Tehran. The announcement coincided with the leak of the classified annex of the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran, which concludes that Tehran has “sufficient information” to build a nuclear weapon and is likely to “overcome problems” on developing a delivery system. In other words, this is exactly the wrong time for the one-time defender of the Free World to be backing off on missile defense.
The president offered the convoluted logic that the Iranians are not making progress on long-range missiles but only on short- and medium-range systems, so the planned defense in Eastern Europe was not needed at this time. The premise is hard to accept. In February, Iran launched its first orbital satellite, which the administration said at the time was “certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic missile program of increasingly long range.” Even if the Iranians had temporarily eased off on long-range missile programs, it may have been because they were dissuaded by the very system that Mr. Obama is canceling. Now that the United States is unilaterally disarming against the long-range threat, there is no reason for Iran not to push ahead on that aspect of its missile program. The mullahs would be foolish not to.
The White House trumpeted that it has proposed a “stronger, smarter and swifter” program that is “more comprehensive” because it can cope with the growing short- and medium-range missile threat from Iran. That sounds nice, but it’s hard to defend the notion that dropping long-range defense somehow makes a plan more comprehensive. A reported second phase of the president’s plan would place new missiles in Europe in 2015, which opens a six-year window of vulnerability and places us back at square one with Russia. That doesn’t sound like a smarter plan to us.
A truly comprehensive and smarter plan would have left the scheduled long-range defense in place and augmented it with short- and medium-range defenses. This would give Iran nowhere to turn in its research and development efforts, and it would send a signal of strength rather than diffidence. Other countries building missile capabilities, like North Korea, Syria and Venezuela, might think twice about their defense priorities.
Instead of capitulating, the United States should call attention to the fact that Russia never has had a legitimate objection to missile defense. Unless Moscow is planning a strike on Poland or the Czech Republic, what’s the problem? There’s only one correct answer to Moscow’s charge that a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe could be used against Russia’s long-range offensive ballistic missile arsenal: “That’s right. Deal with it.”