When President Barack Obama announced the suspension of plans to deploy battery interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic, the news was greeted with glee in Western Europe and with a cozy smile in Moscow. At the NATO Headquarters in Brussels last week, many US allies, who had been advocating for such a realization, could not be happier. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was quoted as saying that Obama’s move was “an act of constructive diplomacy at a time when the world wants nothing but peace” in order to wage war against an economic recession plaguing the planet. The suspension of the United States missile defense project in Eastern Europe is considered an implicit rebuke to the Bush administration’s policy of main de fer vis-à-vis The United States’ potential rivals in Eurasia, especially Russia.
Capitalizing on the Washington move, the civilian chief of NATO called for the U.S., Russia and NATO to link their missile defense systems against potential new nuclear threats from Asia and the Middle East. Previous such appeals for collaboration have produced little concrete result, but with Obama’s change of approach, this one may stand a better chance.
Pursuing a policy of “preemption” and intimidation, en 2002, the Bush administration announced its intention to extend the missile shield system into Eastern Europe with the establishment of an anti-ballistic missile silo in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. In exchange for substantial US financial backing, agreements with both countries were signed in August 2008. The agreements predicted completion of the new facilities to be achieved by 2012.
Not surprisingly among Republicans in Congress, reactions were swift. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap the planned missile defense shield shows the United States’ rivals that “we’ll cave” if pressured.
The pressure mentioned here was that of the Russian elite that vehemently opposed to the idea and fought it head-on from the start. “It sends a very bad signal…. It also diminishes our capability to defend ourselves against ballistic missile attack, coincidentally, because we would be taking out the system that might help the United States and potentially substituting a system that could only protect Europe,” Kyl told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren Thursday night. He went on to say that diplomatic moves like this send a wrong message to America’s enemies, specifically Russia by making the Russians understand that “if they play hardball with us, we’ll cave.” It is not so certain that the Russian elite, who control the reigns of power in Moscow, consider themselves America’s enemies. From the beginning, the whole game was to starve off any US military eastward expansion aimed at threatening Russia’s strategic deterrence.
What makes Russia an important regional power with undisputable imperial ambitions and, by extension, a world player in super power relations, is its geostrategic advantage over what it called its sphere of influence. Despite major hardships and social, economic and military downsizing that Russia had to undertake in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country still represents the only viable rival to the United States hegemony worldwide. It has the logistics and the wherewithal to reclaim its old glory if it is the true intention of the nouveaux riches in Moscow. “Russia has asserted that it has a right to be involved in its ‘near abroad,’ places like Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, and that the United States needs to stay out of there…Now, these are NATO colleagues of ours, Poland and the Czech Republic, and if we backed off of putting weaponry into those countries because Russia has objected because it doesn’t like our weaponry that close to Russia, that sends a very bad signal,” Jon Kyle also said. Russia may be in a weaker position than the United States, but for all practical purposes, the US can ill afford a sustained cold war with Russia as it did for over fifty years. This would constitute a huge burden for taxpayers, and it would only benefit fat belly politicians in Eastern Europe, motivating by greed and a dangerous revanchist attitude designed to make Russia pay for years spent under Russian domination.
Moscow responded with caution
In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the Obama move a “right and brave decision.” Putin’s positive reaction was echoed by Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Nigel Sheinwald, who told The Associated Press on Friday that he considered it encouraging that Russia quickly welcomed Obama’s decision to change course in Europe. “One way or the other, it cannot but contribute positively to the objectives of the reset of relations with Russia,” Sheinwald said. He went on to add that “we do want Russia to be an active and committed participant in these discussions on Iran.”
Using Iran as a scapegoat to justify US military further involvement in East Europe is something many experts believe the current US Administration is not prepared to invest in, although Iran’s nuclear ambitions are expected to be one of the major points to be debated at a gathering of world leaders at U.N. headquarters in New York this week. This will quickly be followed by an urgent meeting set for October 1st when U.S, Russia and other powers will sit down with Iranian officials for a resumption of talks on the nuclear issue as well as other security matters.
Ray Takeyh, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as a State Department adviser on Iran policy until last month, said Obama’s blueprint for missile defense in Europe evokes an idea raised in July by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for a defense umbrella over the Persian Gulf. To curtail Iran and to do so effectively without creating further challenges to the United States, a Persian Gulf missile defense must be established. His assertion was not denied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who made a similar link when he laid out details of the Obama plan for Europe. “I don’t want to get into it in too much detail,” Gates told reporters Thursday, “but the reality is we are working both on a bilateral and a multilateral basis in the Gulf to establish the same kind of regional missile defense that would protect our facilities out there as well as our friends and allies.”
Obama is not reinventing the wheel; the United States already is pursuing a similar approach in Asia, where sea-borne anti-missile weapons and mobile radars are arrayed to protect Japan and other allies from a possible missile attack from North Korean. According to Politic.com, under the Obama plan for Europe, U.S. Navy ships empowered by “anti-missile weapons would form a front line of defense in the eastern Mediterranean. [This will be] combined with existing land-based anti-missile systems such as the Patriot ashore in Europe. A similar arrangement is foreseen for the Persian Gulf to protect not only U.S. ships that regularly patrol the Gulf but also Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”
Hillary Clinton clarifies the move
This position was further clarified by Secretary of States Hillary Clinton in a speech at the Brookings Institution last Friday. Clinton stated that this approach to missile defense in Europe is mainly a response to a “perceived change in Iran’s ballistic missile priorities.” The U.S. believes Iran is accelerating its short- and medium-range missile development and going more slowly than previously anticipated in building the long-range missile that once was the central threat. “We believe we will be in a far stronger position to deal with that threat and to do so with technology that works and with a higher degree of confidence that what we pledge to do we can actually deliver,” Clinton said while dismissing claims from critics that Washington in doing so has effectively changed course in order to placate the Russians. “This decision was not about Russia. It was about Iran and the threat that its ballistic missile program poses,” Clinton affirmed.
In addition to the military issues, the shelving of the Bush initiative shows Obama’s desire to improve relations with the Kremlin in an effort to repair the hostile and arrogant attitude created under the Bush Administration. And Obama reportedly expressed his understanding with regards to the Russian grievances, especially when he met his Russian counterparts last July, Dmitri Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Several Russian sources confirmed Obama’s acknowledgement of Russia’s historic relations with the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. But these token concessions to the Kremlin were made in exchange for Moscow’s cooperation with the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. It was no surprise when Medvedev announced that Russia would permit the US Air Force to fly over Russian airspace en route to Afghanistan, shortly before Obama arrived for the summit in Moscow in July. What remains to be seen is whether this latest diplomatic initiative will eventually bear some fruits for the highly criticized US foreign policy in South Asia and in the Middle East.