In a major foreign policy move, President Obama announced today he is abandoning the Bush Administration's missile defence system plan for Eastern Europe. The plan, which would have seen long-range missiles installed in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, had infuriated Russia, who saw it as a direct threat. The Bush administration had always insisted it was not meant to threaten Russia but rather to defend Europe from rogue states like Iran, but this seemed dubious to the Russians considering that the missiles themselves would have been pointed at Russia, been far more powerful than needed to take out the small-arms capability of Iran, and were to be placed just a few miles away from Russia’s border.
Obama said today that after a thorough review of the program he had decided that a more “cost-effective" system using land- and sea-based interceptors would be better suited to Iran's short- and medium-range missile threat. Though the administration stressed that this decision is “not about Russia”, the reality is that it largely is, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it is true that the system Bush planned to install seemed geared more for the Cold War than for the realities of modern dangers, it is also true that it was proving to be a huge obstacle in US-Russian relations. Considering that those relations are in desperate need of improvement in order to have a peaceful world, dismantling this plan could be good for America’s security in more ways than one.
Shortly after Obama was elected Russia had made a bold move showing that they were serious about their objections to the missile system. President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a speech the day after the historic election saying that if the missile shield were installed Russia would install short-range missiles just off the Polish border in its territory of Kaliningrad, in response to the US "provocation." All indications were that they were serious about this threat, and the resulting tit-for-tat could have resulted in a missile defence arms race that no one wants to see.
Reaction from the American right was predictable, decrying Obama for “selling out” American allies (the narrative for the right seems to be that he is a lilly-livered coward abroad while being some kind of Hitler like tyrant at home). But reaction from the international community, and from Russia in particular, reflected a collective sigh of relief. Russia's ambassador to NATO called it a “breakthrough" for US-Russian relations, saying that with this obstacle removed the two countries could move ahead with talks about reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was "a positive step", reflecting the fact that few in Europe were excited about this system which was ostensibly meant to protect them. The missile defence system, after all, was going to outside the scope of NATO and completely US-controlled.
And the conservative governments of Poland and the Czech Republic who had agreed these deals with the Bush Administration, although surely disappointed, were muted in their reaction. The Czech public on the other hand have expressed elation today, as the plan was very unpopular there. The Poles were more mixed in how they felt about the plan, but my Polish friend tells me the media reaction there so far hasn't been too dramatic.
So was this a big concession to Russia? As the title suggests, it was a 'bone', an easy gesture to make considering it wasn't in US defense interest to have it anyway. Essentially no one, including the US military, thought the missile defense system made any sense except the American and Polish right-wing. Iran does not have the capability to deploy or make long-range missiles, and it's never been proven that these systems being installed actually work. As Joe Cirincione told MSNBC last night, the Bush Administration was installing "a technology that doesn't work against a threat that doesn't exist".
Of course the missile defence system has just been one aspect of American foreign policy that Russia has seen as a provocation by the US. They've also seen US invitations to the nations of the caucasus and Central Asia to join NATO as an anti-Russian provocation. It's doubtful Obama will recognise the "Soviet sphere of influence" Russia is trying to claim, nor will he rule out the possibility of these nations joining. But he is unlikely to persue the NATO-expanding policy with the same irresponsible gusto that the Bush Administration did. That gusto was largely to blame for the Georgian War, an entirely avoidable conflict brought on by Georgia misinterpreting Bush's neocon rhetoric for actual promises of future military assistance.
So it seems as if everyone is happy with this announcement except the American Neo Conservatives. And as the never-confirmed limited-term ex-UN ambassador John Bolton makes the rounds today describing this as “a concession to the Russians with absolutely nothing in return” (I’ve never seen anyone get so much media exposure for themselves out of such a limited public career) you have to wonder what decade he’s living in. Altering this plan will result in a more cooperative Russia and probably in the long run a more logical defence capability for the United States.