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Bush's NATO Gambit

Babe Ruth’s last World Series hit was memorable in more ways than one. Taunted by the Cubs’ “bench jockeys”, Ruth was at the plate with two strikes from pitcher Charlie Root. He then gestured to the center field, where the Cubs bench was located, and in a legendary moment hit Root’s next pitch 440 feet into stands exactly where he had pointed.

Though the circumstances are not quite as dramatic, Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post wonders why President George W. Bush should publicly call his shots. What good will it do to state the goal of starting the admission the Ukraine and Georgia into NATO in the face of France and Germany’s objections to the Eastward expansion of NATO? Froomkin wrote, “at least two NATO members appear to be opposed to Bush’s expansion plan. And since NATO operates by consensus, that would seem to indicate that Bush is headed for another international humiliation.”

Indeed, why should GWB, already humiliated by the press at every opportunity, seek more shame and degradation by making a promise he can’t deliver?

Perhaps because France and Germany are unlikely to categorically block a membership application supported by the US, Britain, Canada and a number of Eastern European members. Joining NATO requires the lengthy completion of a Membership Action Plan (MAP), and it has been predicted that France and Germany will simply insist on studying the matter further rather than rejecting it outright. The Associated Press reports that “NATO diplomats said they expected the summit would produce a compromise stressing that NATO’s door would remain open to Ukraine and Georgia, encouraging them to continue political and military reforms to prepare for joining, but delaying the opening of the formal membership process.” Radio Free Europe had a detailed description of how the Ukraine and Georgia applications might be handled. “Some observers are suggesting that if Ukraine and Georgia fail to receive a MAP this week in Bucharest, they may not have to wait an entire year before their bid is reviewed again. The NATO alliance can technically grant a MAP at any time in the year — and may simply be waiting for outgoing President Putin to step down in May before they make the move.”

So much for that problem. With Ukraine and Georgia membership issue diplomatically finessed, the real diplomatic action may take place not in Bucharest but in Russia, where, following the summit, Presidents Bush and Putin are expected to sign an agreement on the scope of missile defense in Eastern Europe. Thomson Financial News reports that “U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday envisaged an ‘unprecedented level’ of cooperation between Russia and NATO by integrating former Soviet military sites into an anti-missile system in Europe.” If boldly predicting the admission of the Ukraine and Georgia didn’t qualify as a “called shot”, surely this does. Although Russia has been described as in opposition to the construction of a radar site in the Czech Republic and the deployment of 10 interceptors in Poland to defend Europe against future Iranian missile threats, in reality Moscow itself will soon be within range of Teheran’s weapons. Doug Richardson, editor of Janes Missiles and Rockets told Radio Free Europe that “In order [for an Iranian weapon] to get to Moscow you would have to get a missile of 2,000 kilometers range … we’ve heard talk of something allegedly called the Shahab-3B … the reports talked about 2,000-2,500-kilometer range … We know they are doing a lot of rocket development work, 2,500 would not quite get you to Rome, it would probably get you to Zagreb, Budapest, you’d get most of Slovakia, it would get you a bit into the Czech Republic [and] up to Warsaw, Minsk, and not quite St. Petersburg.”

With Russia itself vulnerable, Moscow’s interest in missile defense was demonstrated in June 2007 when Vladimir Putin offered America the use of a Russian early warning radar in Azerbaijan as an ostensible “replacement” for the X-band system planned for the Czech Republic. But the Russian radar was of a completely different type and could not have seriously been considered as a substitute. The X-band radar is a version of the system used by the United States to shoot down missiles over the Pacific, which generates an extremely tight tracking beam. In fact, the radar planned for the Czech Republic “is currently located at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands” and will “be relocated to Europe”. So the offer of the Russian radar was of greater value as a political signal than as a technical replacement.

The NYT reported that access to the Russian radar was granted to Maj Gen Patrick O’Reilly, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency who concluded “that the Russian early warning system would not be an adequate replacement for the American radar proposed for the Czech Republic, which is designed for very precise tracking and focusing on targets.” Given that Maj Gen O’Reilly would have probably have known the characteristics of the Russian radar from US electronic intellgence surveys already, he may have been looking over the Azerbaijani radar as a complement, and not a substitute to the US radar system.

The Czech system is apparently going forward. A burst of activity in the Czech Republic to finalize the installation suggests it is being readied preparation for the Bush-Putin summit. Desmond Butler of the Associated Press reports that:

A senior U.S. missile defense negotiator said Monday that the United States is nearing a deal with the Czech Republic to install a radar on Czech soil. Speaking at a conference on missile defense, John Rood, the U.S. State Department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, said that negotiations could be wrapped up within days “with a final burst of activity.” … The Czech Republic is also saying that it is ready to sign a deal. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is quoted in a Czech newspaper Monday as saying that the last problems in negotiations have been cleared away.

So as President Bush attends the NATO summit and meets with Putin he may be hoping to score in two possible ways. The first may be a single involving the NATO membership of the Ukraine and Georgia; the second may be a hoped-for home run of a security agreement with Vladimir Putin.

(P.S. The huge Sea-based X-band radar which is a linchpin of national missile defense and that helped shoot down NROL-21 has a hull that was actually built in Vyborg, Russia.)

Richard Fernandez writes at the Belmont Club.