Commentary Magazine


The Missile-Defense Betrayal

It was not uncommon for a pharaoh to deface the monuments of his predecessors, insert his name in their inscriptions, or impose his likeness on the heads of their statues. The enterprising ruler—whoever he might have been—responsible for introducing this practice debased the respect traditionally accorded to pharaohs postmortem, thus opening the door of precedent for successors to usurp his monuments and achievements in turn. For a leader to fiddle with the permanence of the past in exchange for artificial boosts to his own legacy tends to be self-defeating.

Today the Obama administration is behaving as if its mandate—conferred by a majority of voters frustrated with the Bush administration—carried sufficient authority not only to break with the past but also to undo it. The new man in the White House is bringing retroactive changes to foreign policy and showing no scruples about reneging on the long-term commitments of his country when they interfere with his own plans. On September 17, President Barack Obama officially announced that he would abandon the Eastern European missile-shield program, thus scrapping the treaties Gorge W. Bush had signed with Poland and the Czech Republic. The decision has drawn expressions of dismay from the governments of both countries.

“Catastrophic for Poland” is how a spokeswoman at the Polish Ministry of Defense described the suspension of the program. Mirek Topolanek, the former Czech prime minister who had gone out on a limb with his own electorate by signing the missile-defense treaty two years ago, interpreted the decision as another sign that “the Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before.” He added ruefully that “this is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence.” Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and founder of Solidarity, observed with bitterness: “I can see what kind of policy the Obama administration is pursuing toward this part of Europe. The way we are being approached needs to change.”

Such rancor should not be surprising. It was the U.S. that had asked Poland and the Czech Republic to host components of a defense system designed to protect against long-range ballistic missiles from Iran and other rogue states. When, in 2006, George W. Bush broached the subject in concrete terms, he found a hospitable political climate in both countries, each then led by fiercely pro-American and Euro-skeptic nationalist-conservative coalitions.

Under the rule of the twin brothers Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, who served as prime minister and president respectively, Poland was eager to underscore its sovereignty—and if it could do so in defiance of Russian pressure, so much the better. The twins pounced on the American offer and, without insisting on detailed assurances from the U.S. regarding the related costs, risks, maintenance, or compensation, declared Poland willing to deploy the proposed 10 missile interceptors. To them, the mere presence of American troops and bases on Polish soil, and the strengthening it implied of transatlantic ties, justified Poland’s participation in the project. “From the point of view of our interests, every U.S. soldier, every U.S. base on Polish territory, increases our security and binds us to the United States by a closer alliance,” the minister of defense at the time, Aleksander Szczyglo, told the press.

But parliamentary elections in October 2007 split control of the Polish government and complicated the missile-defense negotiations. Donald Tusk, whose center-right party had promised voters to normalize relations with Russia, pull troops out of Iraq, and revisit the missile-defense project, replaced Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister in November of that year. Although President Lech Kaczynski, not up for re-election until 2010, urged the new government to move forward with missile defense, Tusk remained noncommittal. “We must know the answer to the question whether [missile defense] increases or decreases Poland’s safety,” he said upon assuming office.

At the time, the Poles believed that the Democrats were just as willing to finance the shield as the Republicans. Representatives of Congress had recently visited Poland and the Czech Republic to relay that much. Specifically, Democrat Ellen Tauscher, then head of the House of Representatives Strategic Forces Subcommittee that would determine funding for missile defense, had reassured the Polish government that the shield would be deployed regardless of the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Her own opposition to the shield made her assurance in a way even more credible.

Misled by this guarantee, the Poles grossly misjudged their bargaining position. They tried to extract new concessions from the Bush administration, including a bilateral defense agreement, the deployment of Patriot missile batteries, and $20 billion in financial aid for revamping the Polish air defenses. The negotiations were stretched to the breaking point as Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski insisted on these demands and the Polish public grew even wearier of the shield. Left-leaning factions in Poland thought it arrogant of the Bush administration to have taken their country’s cooperation for granted without offering much in return—after all, Poles felt “no threat from Iran,” and missile defense was “an American, not a Polish project,” as their foreign minister had put it. They posited that a Democratic administration would be better disposed to accommodate their reasonable demands.

But as Barack Obama emerged as the front-runner in the presidential race, his expressed interest in pursuing an American rapprochement with Russia concentrated the minds of all those who had  hoped for a better deal from the Democrats. Any hesitation from that point onward about cooperating with the U.S. on missile defense came not from playing for time but rather from the fear that time might already have run out. The U.S. would not be able to ratify and implement a treaty before the changeover in administration. Sikorski admitted in an interview that “the worst-case scenario is a situation in which Poland consents to the shield, incurs the political costs, and then the base is not built because the government changes in the United States.” Alas that is exactly what happened.

And what of the situation in the Czech Republic? Czech politicians at first believed, as their Polish counterparts had, that the outcome of the U.S. presidential election would not materially affect the project. As late as April 2008, Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister at the time, told the press that any steps needed to implement missile defense would be taken faster by a Republican administration and slower by a Democratic administration. “But as it is a basic security interest of the United States,” Schwarzenberg surmised, “I do think the whole project will go on.”

In return for hosting a component of the shield, the Czechs made modest demands compared with those of the Poles—namely, that Czech companies participate in any defense contracts for building the radar and that the U.S. share its missile-defense research with Czech universities. No changes of government occurred that could have upset the negotiations—President Vaclav Havel and then Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek both supported the shield ardently.

Despite tactical posturing by the Polish government, native opposition to the shield had always been shallow; only a narrow majority of the public—52 percent—was against it, and the two largest political parties approved of it in principle. Among the Czechs, by contrast, hostility to the shield had grown stronger—at some 70 percent of the public—and better organized. The Poles had more to prove by flouting Russian objections to their policy because they share borders with Russia and its client state Belarus. Behind a thicker geographic bulwark, the Czechs felt more secure in their autonomy. Whereas the Poles considered an American presence in their territory a sign of their sovereignty, most Czechs considered it an affront.

The Bush administration was compelled to assuage these concerns and meet both the Poles and the Czechs halfway on their often divergent tactics, interests, and fears. Before an agreement could be reached, all the stars had to align, precariously, in the diplomatic firmament. The final treaties included NATO backing and provided for the Poles a single Patriot missile battery along with verbal promises for more Patriots in the future. Yet a mere few months after the treaties were signed, in the spring and summer of 2008, Russia brazenly assaulted Georgia, thus pointedly underscoring just how credible its threats could be and striking fresh fear throughout Eastern Europe. Even after Obama was elected in November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia would move short-range missiles to its borders with NATO allies if missile-defense plans went ahead.

President Kaczynski was the first to probe Obama over missile defense after the election. On November 7 the two men held a phone conversation apparently so suffused with diplomatic euphemisms that each interpreted what was said differently. The Polish leader reported on his presidential website that Obama had “expressed hope in the continuation of political and military cooperation between our countries. He also said that the missile-defense project would continue.” But Obama’s staff told the press that “Kaczynski raised missile defense but…Obama made no commitment on it.”

Tense silence hung over the project for months—at last broken by a secret letter from Obama to Medvedev, which suggested that Washington might reconsider deploying the missile shield in exchange for greater help from the Kremlin in reining in Iran. Medvedev welcomed the letter but dismissed the overture, retorting that it was counterproductive to frame the issue as a bargain or an exchange.

Alarmed by this slipshod offer at his country’s expense, Sikorski reminded Washington that Poland had taken “something of a political risk” in signing the missile-defense agreement with the Bush administration. He added:

When we started discussing this with the United States, the U.S. assured us they would persuade the Russians that it was purely defensive and it would be a non-controversial decision…. We signed with the old administration; we patiently wait for the new administration, and we hope we don’t regret our trust in the United States.

The Czech government, too, found itself in turmoil. Soon after Obama’s letter became public, its prime minister, Topolanek, had to withdraw the missile-defense treaty from consideration by the Parliament lest it be voted down. His wobbly coalition had overinvested in the shield and collapsed in early May. To the consternation of many in Eastern Europe, Obama soon caved in to Russian demands that no shield be installed in Poland or the Czech Republic. These overleveraged allies learned that trusting America’s word to extend beyond a presidential term is a dangerous gamble—one they have just lost.

There is no precedent for the manner in which the agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic were scrapped; the U.S. has historically respected its treaties—even those never ratified by the Senate. One such treaty was the strategic-arms measure known as SALT II, signed by Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev a few months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan opposed that treaty, but upon succeeding Carter he nevertheless announced that the U.S. would abide by its provisions. Reagan maintained this stance throughout his first term, until finally in 1986, facing mounting evidence that the Soviets were not complying with SALT II, he announced that the U.S. would no longer abide by its terms. This decision touched off an uproar on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives approved a nonbinding resolution calling on Reagan to continue adhering to the weapons limits set in SALT II. Congress also proposed an amendment that would ban spending on any arms breaking the SALT II ceiling.

There is a revolutionary aspect to diplomacy by tabula rasa: to the administration unconstrained by preceding commitments, the world of international relations becomes an exhilarating puzzle waiting to be put together from scratch. But the picture is very different to those nations whose good-faith gestures and risks are thus snubbed. In this case, pushing what Vice President Joseph Biden has called the “reset button” on missile defense has shaken the ground beneath the feet of America’s staunchest allies in Eastern Europe. Would President Obama feel sanguine about his own diplomatic initiatives if foreign leaders had to weigh his odds of re-election when considering his proposals? The president may have a thoughtful rejoinder, but he may just as likely be too infatuated with the historic significance of his presidency to realize he is setting a dangerous precedent that may apply to him as well.

International relations are not fickle variables to be reset sporadically at the push of a button. Continuity in foreign policy serves as a stable platform for the undertaking of any long-term initiatives with other countries. If U.S. presidents started rebooting relations between America and the rest of the world whenever they assumed office, all diplomatic frameworks would break down, as chronic uncertainty undermines international cooperation. America’s democratic allies are already biased against long-term thinking because the political fates of their leaders depend on the voters’ capricious approval. They might adapt to this climate of uncertainty by shortening their planning horizons even more, requiring immediate reciprocity to any accommodation of our interests. The reaction in Eastern Europe to America’s broken commitment suggests that the region is already contemplating a strategic shift in such a direction.

It cannot be said that the treatment of Poland and the Czech Republic by this administration is an isolated instance of undoing Bush policy. Israel, too, has reason to regret trusting the U.S. for more than one president at a time. In carrying on the Middle East peace process—if process it may be called—the Obama administration has also thrown out understandings between his predecessor and the Jewish state.

In the wake of the second intifada, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza, preferring that Israel retrench to manageable borders of its choice. Bush supported this strategy by isolating the incorrigible Yasir Arafat and backing Israeli measures against terrorism. He also endorsed the idea of creating a Palestinian state—but only once the Palestinians embraced democratic institutions and abandoned violence. President Bush assured the Israeli government that in the event of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, the U.S. would not expect Israel to retreat to the 1949 armistice lines and would support Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs.

Five years later, the Obama administration has reneged on these commitments. Current U.S. officials, including two spokesmen and one assistant secretary of state, have refused—on 14 separate occasions—to answer whether this administration considers itself bound by the letter outlining the change in attitude toward settlements that Congress endorsed and Bush handed to Ariel Sharon in 2004. Obama compounded this reversal by insisting that a “freeze on settlement expansion” previously agreed to by Israel be interpreted in the strictest sense, not allowing even for natural growth in the population of existing settlements. This decision created an unnecessary breach with Jerusalem that served to isolate an already beleaguered Israel even further. But it did nothing to advance peace, because it encouraged the Palestinians to demand even greater concessions from Israel as a precondition for resuming peace talks that have little prospect of success.

Diplomacy by “reset” damages our alliances in the long run and may do even worse to our relationships with hostile countries. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s response to how the new administration will approach unfriendly Latin American leaders like Hugo Chavez has been “Let’s put ideology aside; that is so yesterday.” Clinton should not be surprised if pragmatism, or whatever she has abandoned ideology in favor of, becomes “so yesterday” as soon as tomorrow, given the evanescence she ascribes to the guiding principles of foreign policy. The main problem in treating the world as if it began with Obama is that it doesn’t end with Obama, and our foes know it.

As U.S. administrations come and go, the same strongmen, oligarchs, despots, theocrats, and absolute monarchs continue to rule most countries hostile to America. Given their long planning horizons, why should they make any irreversible concessions in return for only temporary commitments from America? If the next U.S. president might offer a better bargain, back out on a joint project, or forgive all past sins, elementary principles of game theory dictate that foreign despots stay their course. When trust—the paramount currency of diplomacy—starts to erode, only force retains full purchasing power. It is ironic that Obama, an eager champion of “smart power,” is pioneering methods of diplomacy that, if adopted by future presidents, will render military interventions more necessary, and more likely, by undermining their only alternative—namely, trust and long-term agreements.

Granted, elections carry consequences, and every new president brings his own strategy and tactics to the White House. But inherent in two-party politics is a temptation—to which, on occasion, both parties have succumbed—for the opposition to undermine whatever the administration attempts. This contrarian impulse spares nothing, not even foreign policy. The penchant for cannibalizing rival administrations has built to a crescendo since the end of the Cold War and is now reaching a climax in the retroactive undoing of Bush initiatives.

In justifying the abrogation of the missile-defense treaties so casually, Obama cannot but do his own legacy a disservice. No American president gets to have the last word. For the blank slate he has cleared for himself at his predecessor’s expense, Obama will pay by seeing future presidents undo his work on a whim. And as a result of his revisionist stunt, neither this country’s friends nor its enemies can know what to expect from the United States.

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