The timing of the announcement could not have been more appalling. In fact, I cannot recall any recent example of “What on Earth could they have been thinking?” that is more historically insensitive and potentially more damaging. The Obama administration’s scrapping of the missile defense shield over Eastern Europe on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland clearly takes the cake. It’s as if Hillary Clinton grabbed the “reset” button and whacked it on the heads of the Polish and Czech leaders, just to make sure it’s working. And working it is. “We value the U.S. president’s responsible approach towards implementing our agreements. … I am ready to continue the dialogue,” said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Kremlin-controlled Channel One and Rossiya TV, meanwhile, were in the gloating mood, celebrating the “fiasco of a long-standing anti-Russian policy” by the former Soviet satellites and their one-time enablers in Washington (link in Polish).
The official and unofficial reactions in the countries affected were predictably caustic. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk initially refused to take calls from the administration, including Hillary, though he later spoke with Obama. The current center-right Civic Platform government subsequently tried to play down the implication of the American decision, even going as far as to suggest that some alternative plans that might or might not be on the table, such as placing Patriot missile batteries in Poland, were actually a better idea than the original shield. Not many other politicians and commentators bought it.
Eastern and Central Europe have generally been strongly pro-American in the past, and even the anti-Americanism, at least in Poland, has rarely been the rabid, hysterical obsession evident in many other parts of the world. Instead, it has been more of an example of a weary cynicism of any supposed friends and allies (cynicism not unjustified in light of the last three hundred years of Polish history). And there was plenty of that cynicism to go around in the comments sections of Polish online newspapers. “I guess we didn’t suck up hard enough [to the Americans]” or “Sad, at the time when our boys are giving their lives in their [America’s] wars” were some of the typical reactions from readers.
What does Obama get out of this decision, aside from some minor budgetary savings, hardly a top priority in Washington at the moment? Since the missile shield was meant to protect the European allies from WMD strikes by rouge states, Obama’s thinking seems to be that a more successful avenue of dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not through defense and deterrence but through diplomacy — in this instance, getting Russia to apply additional pressure on Tehran. That might indeed happen, if the Kremlin thinks the American capitulation on the missile shield deserves some sort of a reward, but if anyone seriously thinks the mullahs will be diverted from their plans by token Russian sanctions and finger-wagging then they’re likely to be disappointed. In any case, the Kremlin made it blatantly clear that no deal to that effect has been made with the Americans and that Obama’s decision to scrap the missile shield was his own initiative.
There’s also a geopolitical aspect to the capitulation. Obama thinks that better relations with Russia in general are well worth letting down a few traditional but small and relatively insignificant allies. As a cynical calculus it is probably correct. Russia, while but a shadow of its former Soviet self, is still a great power with an infinite capability for mischief directed at American interests around the world. Poland and the Czech Republic, not to mention Ukraine and Georgia, have very little to offer America by way of tangible benefits: a few soldiers in Afghanistan, a few extra votes at the UN, and some feel-good pageantry.
All these supposed benefits for America, however, are far less clear-cut once we leave Obama’s fantasy “what-might-be” world and focus on some real-life implications. Above all else, the decision to ditch the shield sends another signal to America’s allies around the world that they cannot really trust and depend on the United States, which will let them hang out to dry whenever it proves expedient. Of course, administrations change, as do priorities and policies, and a bipartisan foreign policy, if it ever really existed, died in the rice paddies of Vietnam. But even granting all that, Obama’s penchant for intentionally or carelessly slapping down America’s long-standing allies for the sake of questionable gains or international applause has became somewhat of a hallmark of his administration. That it’s unfolding against the backdrop of particularly fluid and uncertain times in international relations makes it all the more worrisome a trend.
While the shield was meant to be directed against threats from rouge regimes like Iran, all parties concerned always saw it through the prism of Russia’s relations with its neighbors and former vassals as well as the West. Despite all the grumbling from Moscow that the shield was really an aggressive act directed against Russia, everyone knew that militarily it would have barely mattered in case of any new East-West conflict. Its value was almost purely symbolic — as a sign that the United States and NATO were serious about the expanded alliance and, specifically, that the Western alliance would not allow Russia to have a veto over the security concerns of the former communist satellites. All that is now up in the air, opening a giant can of worms from the Baltic to the Caucasus. The decision not to proceed with the missile shield will create more instability and insecurity in the region than the shield itself ever would.
A few days ago, I wrote that September 17 is one of those not-very-well-known and hardly-ever-commemorated dates in history. Now, thanks to Obama’s poor timing, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion is receiving considerably more attention outside of Poland than it would otherwise have — sadly, for all the wrong reasons. Obama’s decision hardly represents another Munich or Yalta, but America’s staunch allies in Central and Eastern Europe have every right to feel disappointed. The insensitivity of its timing merely adds to the already bitter taste.