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Opinion: Obama's move was not appeasement

The only purpose for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe was to provoke Russia.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (L) walks with the governor Sergei Mitin in Veliky Novgorod, some 323 miles from Moscow, Sept. 18, 2009. A senior Kremlin source on Friday said a U.S. decision to scrap plans for a fixed missile defense shield in Europe opened the door for greater cooperation on cutting arms and on nuclear non-proliferation. (Ria Novosti/Reuters)

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.