The Obama administration chose an historic month to appease the Russians by reneging on the U.S. proposal to place ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. September 1st of 2009 was the 70th anniversary of the Nazis' unprovoked attack on Poland. In the middle of the same month the Red Army invaded Poland--70 years ago to the day. At the end of this month is the 71st anniversary of the Munich agreement in which England and France agreed to allow Hitler to annex large portions of western Czechoslovakia. The administration's decision was made public on the same day that the Associated Press reported on an International Atomic Energy Agency secret assessment that Iran has "sufficient information" to build a bomb, and is likely to "overcome problems" in developing the accompanying delivery systems.
Obama's appeasement of the Russians in the same two countries is an eerie recapitulation of Western weakness. It accepts the Russians' unsupportable assertion that ballistic missile batteries in Central Europe were intended to defend the U.S. against Russian missiles: They weren't--Russian missiles aimed at the U.S. would travel over the North Pole, not Poland or Central Europe. War may not be the likely outcome. But a global reconsideration of American resolve and the wisdom of relying on our security guarantees lead neither to a safer United States nor a more secure world. Rather, they invite aggression.
As with Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, appeasing the Russians is not likely to produce any positive results. There is no reason to think that--as the Obama administration evidently hopes--Russia will cooperate more fully with U.S. efforts to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power because we undercut leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic who expended considerable political capital in defense of military cooperation with the U.S? Once those defenses are cancelled, what incentive does Vladimir Putin have to pressure the Iranians? Is the elimination of a handful of ballistic missile interceptors and radar tracking systems likely to change Russia's strategic evaluation of a nuclear-armed Iran?
The administration's ostensible reason for cancelling the missile defense system is all the more dubious since Obama's own National Intelligence Strategy, published last month, listed Iran's "nuclear and missile programs" first in its catalogue of "nation-states that have the ability to challenge U.S. interests."
The administration's subsequent claim--that Iran's long-range missile program has not progressed as rapidly as expected recapitulates the National Intelligence Estimate's (NIE) finding in December 2007 that Iran had halted its effort to produce nuclear weapons. Who believed the NIE then, and does anyone still believe this to be true today? Should we soon expect an intelligence estimate that Iran doesn't actually exist? What reason is there to think that if Iran failed to achieve all it hoped for with its long-range missile programs to date, the deficiency will not be addressed in the future? The vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is quoted in the 17 September issue of the Wall Street Journal saying that Iran and North Korea's long-range missile capabilities "are not there yet." Would it make better sense to wait until these capabilities are "there" before defending against them? If North Korea's long-range missile abilities are now in question, will the effort to construct our own defenses against such attack be put on hold until we are satisfied that they represent an imminent threat?
Are the Russians likely to agree to the placing of a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic at some time in the future once the U.S. decides that Iran possesses effective long-range missiles that can reach our allies in Europe? Of course not. This decision is the clearest and most definitive evidence yet that what the Obama administration means by a "reset" of our relations with Russia is simple appeasement.
The consequences will damage U.S. interests in Europe and around the world. The decision invites the question why this administration is more interested in pleasing those who "seek avenues for reasserting power that complicate U.S. interests," (The National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America's partial description of Russia, published in August 2009) than it is in honoring commitments to one of our only European allies, Poland, whose people still believe that military defense remains a legitimate and moral instrument of state power.
In Central Europe the decision is a pointed reminder that U.S. policy has thrown the Central Europeans under the Russian bus once since the end of World War II. Will the Central Europeans now decide that the same bus is coming again and that the wisest policy would be to start reaching accommodation with Russia? The results for Western Europeans are equally far-reaching. The Obama administration decision confirms the increasing opinion in Western Europe that conflict is passé and a relic. It helps shred what's left of the consensus about collective defense that undergirds NATO.
The likely harm that results from this decision goes far beyond Europe. The U.S. has security commitments to Israel, Japan, and South Korea for example. How are leaders in those and other countries likely to regard the Obama administration's failure to honor American security commitments? Does President Obama understand that the United States' interest in keeping its word transcends his own political interest in continuing to distance himself from his predecessor?
The Obama administration has decided to dishonor a security commitment made to one of the United States' most reliable and dependable democratic allies, and to placate an increasingly authoritarian corrupt state that helped Iran build its nuclear power plant at Bushehr and supplies Iran with significant military equipment such as air-defense missiles. The decision is a sign of weakness, a confirmation that this administration does not see value in defending against ballistic missiles, and a wholesale invitation to aggressive behavior, not just from Russia.
This capitulation is all the more inexcusable because, unlike the situation that Chamberlain faced at Munich in 1938, Russia, unlike Nazi Germany, is still a relatively weak power. The Obama administration has as little to fear from Russia's military as it has to expect that Russian goodwill or self-interest will have a moderating effect on Iran's plans to become a nuclear power.
The future damage, however, to international perceptions of American resolve is incalculable.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administration, and as a naval officer from 1985 to 2005.