NEW YORK - Those growing numbers of foreign policy critics who have been claiming that the Obama administration is simply George W. Bush’s third term were confounded last week as the new president put the kibosh on one of Bush’s most beloved and most dim-witted projects.
Obama's welcome cancellation of Bush’s proposed anti-ballistic missile system(ABM) based in Eastern Europe marks a major breakthrough in US-Russian relations, a victory for political realism over ideology, and a sharp defeat for Washington’s increasingly out of touch neoconservative hard right.
Egged on by Vice President Dick Cheney and anti-Russian neoconservatives, Bush declared the US would build a strategic anti-missile system on the Czech Republic and Poland designed to shoot down Iranian nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) targeted on the US and Europe - even though Iran did not have any long-ranged missiles and was unlikely to ever produce them.
Bush’s bizarre plan – some called it the mutant son of President Ronald Reagan’s cherished Star Wars anti-missile program - predictably enraged Russia. Imagine America’s reaction if a Russian anti-missile system were built in Cuba or Northern Mexico. The proposed US ABM system posed no real threat to Russia, but it was a slap in the face to the Kremlin and an intolerable provocation.
What’s more, no one was sure of the new system would even work in the event of any attack. It looked awfully easy to sabotage or spoof.
Worse, the Bush White House was dangerously provoking Russia, which had some 2,000 nuclear warheads targeted on the US, by planning to deploy the ABM system against Iran which, according to US intelligence, had no nuclear weapons and showed no signs of planning to produce them. Deepening the confrontation with Moscow, the Bush administration openly backed Georgia in the foolish conflict it picked with Russia, raising dangerous tensions between the two great powers.
Scrapping the ABM system will allow Washington and Moscow to restore their battered relations and resume fruitful arms limitation cooperation. Maintaining normal relations with Moscow, and avoiding tensions that could spark a nuclear war, remains Washington’s most important foreign policy strategic imperative.
Conservative Czech and Polish politicians are loudly complaining, but opinion polls show that a majority of their citizens opposed Bush’s ABM plan.
Cries by US Republicans and neoconservatives that Obama’s scrapping of the ABM system was “appeasement” and “a second Munich” are laughable. Sen. John McCain, a big booster of US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, actually had the chutzpah to accuse Russia of “adventurism.”
World War II mythology has become something of a state religion for faintly informed Republicans. Many actually believe that Muslims are Nazis in turbans.
These were the same Republicans that backed George Bush’s comical claims that Saddam’s Iraq was deploying “drones of death’ – shades of Dr Fu Manchu - that would sprinkle plague powder over a sleeping America.
By contrast, President Obama has faced reality. The US seeks Russia’s support to impose crushing sanctions on Iran – or launch military operations. Washington needs Moscow’s support in supplying US forces in Afghanistan, and dealing with North Korea. Bush’s pie in the sky missile plan had to go.
It is an old adage that American administrations can only deal with one big question at a time. Obama faces three: America’s financial melt-down, Iran, and Afghanistan, where US generals are actually warning of possible defeat at the hands of lightly armed Pashtun tribesmen. Barack Obama knows the mess in Afghanistan could wreck his presidency, humiliate the United States, and even return the Republicans to power.
So there is no time right now to worry about Eastern Europe, and no stomach in the administration to go on provoking Russia over unneeded ABM systems or the Caucasus.
Ironically, Russia may eventually have to save the US in Afghanistan from the same kind of catastrophic defeat that befell the USSR. We can be sure Moscow will exact a steep price for pulling America’s chestnuts out of the Afghan fire or getting tougher with Iran. Moscow is already three moves ahead of Washington on the strategic chessboard.
To mollify angry Republicans and East European conservatives, the White House announced it would deploy smaller SM-3 anti-missile missiles and perhaps some updated PAC-3 systems to Europe. The SM-3’s would be based at sea and others on land to protect against the supposed Iranian “threat.”
Not explained was why Iran would risk nuclear annihilation in order to fire a few inaccurate missiles at Bucharest, Brussels or Warsaw. Why on earth would Iran attack Europe, its largest trading partner and potential ally? The only possible target for Iran in Europe would be US bases. But there are a wide number of US bases around Iran. Tehran has sample targets close to home.
The White House sheepishly admitted Bush’s much ballyhooed threat of long-ranged Iranian missiles had been “exaggerated.” The danger, said Washington, now comes from short and medium-ranged Iranian missiles. But Iran’s longest-ranged missiles fly only 2,000 km, are inaccurate, and lack nuclear warheads. For now, they are about as dangerous as Saddam’s useless Scuds.
But a lot of Americans don’t want to hear any sense about Iran. We seem to have a national need for highly threatening foreign foes, real or imagined.