- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

For some armchair strategists, President Obama’s decision to scrap President George W. Bush’s plan to deploy ballistic-missile-defense hardware in Poland and the Czech Republic was rank appeasement that would merely sharpen the Russian bear’s appetite for more unilateral concessions that could only weaken America’s defense posture. That was sound Cold War thinking. For some, the Cold War’s villains continue in sheep’s clothing. Moscow still craves recognition as the dominant power in the former Soviet Union.

For others, Mr. Obama made the wise decision of bagging a lemon that had soured relations with the Russian leadership, which never really believed the story that the missile-defense system was designed to intercept Iranian missiles on their way to European and/or American targets.

If Iran’s unknown future plans were to take on the European Union and/or the United States with nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles, which no one in the intelligence community believes, the first prudent move would have been to share our fears with then-President Vladimir Putin and exchange ideas on a joint deterrent. The only plausible Iranian nuclear-missile threat is against Israel, a country Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants consigned to oblivion. And now Israel is ready for any kind of Iranian missile attack. The Gulf countries across the water keep upgrading their anti-missile defenses with the latest U.S. Patriot systems and feel a little safer from whatever threats Iran may have up the chief ayatollah’s sleeve.

Poland and the Czech Republic, some pundits say, feel abandoned by the United States as a result of Mr. Obama’s decision. Wrong. Both Prague and Warsaw had been expecting Mr. Obama’s decision since he won the presidency. But it clearly encourages these two former Soviet satellites - once anointed “New Europe” by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld - to close ranks with the “Old Europe” and seek security against missile attacks in a larger defense framework.

This was precisely what NATO’s new secretary-general, Denmark’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen, recommended in his inaugural address - “a genuine, new beginning” in NATO-Russia relations. The new strategic vision, he explained, should focus on immediate shared security challenges, i.e., transnational terrorism and missile defense (against Iran). A joint review of new security challenges facing the United States, NATO and Russia is long overdue.

On missile defense, Mr. Rasmussen said NATO should explore the potential for linking the missile-defense systems of the United States, NATO and Russia. A first step should be to revitalize the NATO-Russia Council “as an open and transparent forum for peace and stability in Europe.” A Russian general is still stationed at NATO’s supreme allied command near Mons, Belgium. The idea of a wider global security system with Russia was first bruited as the Cold War suddenly expired with the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. However, geopolitical tunnel vision led the United States to push NATO’s frontiers ever closer to Russia’s borders, rekindling Russian paranoia about encirclement.

Denials notwithstanding, Mr. Obama’s decision to replace ground-based interceptors and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic by Aegis-equipped warships already upgraded to ballistic-missile defense in the North and Mediterranean seas was tailored to “reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship by providing a little space for U.S.-Russian strategic arms-control negotiations. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires in December. There also was the hope Moscow would agree to much tougher punitive sanctions against Iran to persuade the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards to forgo their nuclear ambitions. Forlorn hope, that is.

But on Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union was defeated in the 1980s, Russian leaders have proved uncharacteristically cooperative in securing alternate supply routes from Riga on the Baltic Sea to northern Afghanistan, a weeklong rail journey, to replace much faster but more deadly roads through Pakistan.

Mr. Obama has opted for diplomatic engagement, so-called smart power, or a blend of soft and hard power. But the ranks of his detractors grow daily. For example, leaders representing 28 million evangelicals and Catholics are calling for a blockade of Iranian ports against imports of gasoline and for an arms embargo. Former Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamist dictatorship. Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh pontificate daily about grass-roots anger coast to coast, with millions seeing themselves permanently jobless as companies climb back to profitability with fewer workers. Now 60 percent of Americans are against the war in Afghanistan as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s bleak confidential assessment recommending 40,000 more troops leaks and adds more fuel to the fires of dissent.

It’s hardly the picture a much diminished Mr. Obama wanted to project to the rest of the world before appearing at the United Nations and the Pittsburgh Group of 20 summit of leading economic countries last week.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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