BOSTON, Massachusetts — When President George W. Bush committed the U.S. to putting up a missile shield in Poland, with radar facilities in the Czech Republic, the Russians raised holy hell.
The installations would have made very little difference in the strategic balance between Russia and the West. Russia has enough missiles to overwhelm such a slender defensive reed.
What got the Russians was that it was so obviously an anti-Russian move. The Cold War was supposed to be over, Russia said, and the move further depressed U.S.-Russian relations that reached a post-Cold War low under Bush.
The Bush administration cloaked its intentions by saying that it was a defense against Iran. That was always ludicrous because no one ever suggested that Iran had any intention to target Eastern Europe. Despite statements to the contrary from the Bush administration, Russia recognized the missile defenses for what they were.
The other two countries who understood that the missile shield was an anti-Russian maneuver were Poland and the Czech Republic. Those former Russian colonies that languished under the Soviet heel during the Warsaw Pact years were pleased to perceive that the United States was making a commitment to their safety.
For Poland in particular, geography is destiny and it will be many generations before the Poles feel safe so close to Mother Russia. One remembers that Poland hesitated to accept the missiles for a while until Russia’s brief war with Georgia. When that occurred the Poles signed up on the double. President Obama’s decision to abandon this unnecessary provocation of Russia was a bold move and a good move. It goes a long way to “reset” Russo-American relations, as Obama promised to do. The United States needs Russian cooperation in any number of fronts — Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism and energy being only a few of them.
One sympathized with Obama and his defense secretary, Robert Gates, when they dressed up the change in policy in the clothes of improved technology and intelligence. When asked why he had changed his mind from the days when he was Bush’s secretary of defense, Gates said that intelligence showed that the threat was from short- and medium-range Iranian missiles, and that Tehran’s long-range missile program had not advanced as quickly as previously thought. He also said that the job could be done better from Navy ships, which is true. But it was also true when Gates served under President Bush.
U.S. Sen. John McCain said the decision to abandon the missile plans for Poland and the Czech Republic was a mistake, one of the reasons being it would be seen as abandoning our allies. By saying so, McCain let it be known that he, too, looked on the missile shield as an anti-Russian ploy, and we can expect more charges of appeasement.
But both Poland and the Czech Republic are NATO members, and an attack on any NATO country is considered an attack on all. Poles and Czechs are not in danger, and if anything the missile shield made them less secure because of the provocation Russia perceived.
There was never a guarantee that the missile shield would have worked, and it was a good bargaining chip to trade away — just as the obsolete missiles in Turkey were traded away by President John F. Kennedy to ease the Soviet back-down removing missiles from Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960s. Appeasement has been a dirty word since Munich, in 1938, when the British and French sold out Czechoslovakia in the hopes of preventing another World War. As Winston Churchill said of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the time, he had a choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor. He will get war.
But the East European missile defense was never a matter of war and peace, and to suggest that Obama is acting unwisely is similar to saying President Richard Nixon was an appeaser for changing the strategic relationship with Mao’s China.
Of course that was a more earth-shaking, game-changing event than merely trying to remove unnecessary obstacles to Russian-American cooperation. But the words that Henry Kissinger later wrote of that engagement ring true today.
“It was not abstract goodwill,” Kissinger wrote, “ but converging interests … .”
The same could be said of Obama’s recent decision.