The Appalling Timing of Obama's Missile Defense Decision

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.