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Europeans Ambivalent About Obama’s Missile Defense U-Turn

Obama’s diplomatic clumsiness may boost anti-Americanism in Eastern Europe, the only region in Europe where the United States is actually liked.

by
Soeren Kern

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September 22, 2009 - 12:32 am
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U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe has received decidedly mixed reviews in Europe. Although newspapers and magazines across the continent have published editorials generally coming out in favor of Obama’s pronouncement, nearly all of them have also expressed deep skepticism that Obama’s so-called strategy of engagement with Russia will bear much fruit.

Indeed, a consistent theme running through European commentary has been bafflement that Obama would abandon the missile defense system without receiving anything from Russia in return. A number of commentators have raised the issue of Obama’s lack of experience in statecraft. In Britain, for example, the Daily Telegraph published an editorial titled “Barack Obama is Gambling with Europe’s Security.” Another article is titled “President Barack Obama is beginning to look out of his depth.” It says: “His credibility is seeping away, and it will require concrete achievements rather than more soaring oratory to recover it.”

European politicians are also lining up to exploit Obama’s perceived naïveté. In Germany, for example, Guido Westerwelle, who could well be Germany’s next foreign minister after September’s national elections, reacted to Obama’s decision on missile defense by calling on the German government to capitalize on the moment to exert pressure on Obama to remove all U.S. nuclear weapons based in Germany by 2013.

Most newspapers have also taken notice of the rather shabby way in which Obama shared the news of his decision with his counterparts in Poland and the Czech Republic, the two American allies most directly affected by Obama’s decision. (It was by way of a telephone call placed at well past midnight local time.) Some newspapers have pointed to the fact that Obama made the announcement on September 17, the same date on which the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939.

Obama’s diplomatic clumsiness may boost anti-Americanism in Eastern Europe, the only region in Europe where the United States is actually liked. In Poland, for example, the Defense Ministry said Obama’s decision was “a catastrophe for Poland.” Aleksander Szczyglo, a former Polish defense minister, called the U.S. action a “historic error.” And Lech Walesa, the former Polish president, said: “Americans have always cared only about their interests, and all other [countries] have been used for their purposes. [Poles] need to review our view of America.”

In Germany, meanwhile, Green Party leader Jürgen Trittin said Obama’s decision was an embarrassment for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. “Both Merkel and the CDU are disgraced because they always welcomed and supported Bush’s missile defense plans.” Obama’s decision is “a slap in the face to the chancellor,” Trittin said.

More than anything else, however, Obama’s decision seems to be reinforcing the growing perception that the United States is a power in terminal decline. This view has been repeated over and over in print and broadcast media across the continent in recent weeks. It has also been caricatured by political cartoons, such as one published in Britain by the center-left newspaper the Independent, which mockingly declares: “Star Wars: The Empire Downsizes.”

What follows is a review of select European commentary on Obama’s missile defense decision.

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