The BMD Issue and Denying Implausibility

5 MINS READSep 21, 2009 | 01:55 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
LAST WEEK, THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ANNOUNCED that it was reconfiguring U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Europe, beginning with halting plans for installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. The shift would include an increased emphasis on Aegis-equipped warships already being upgraded to BMD capability that would patrol the waters of the North Sea and Mediterranean. At a press conference last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emphasized the technical rationale for the decision: The assessment of Iran's ability to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile had shifted, indicating that the development of such a missile is a long way off; this new scheme would protect Europe, which was still at risk and would continue to be vulnerable; and the new scheme would be in place sooner and ultimately would be more effective. As it happened, technology aside, the decision met one of Russia's ongoing demands — that the United States should not base BMD installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, Gates stated that "Russia's attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue. Of course, considering Russia's past hostility toward American missile defense in Europe, if Russia's leaders embrace this plan, then that will be an unexpected — and welcome — change of policy on their part." If Gates and Obama are to be believed, the decision was made without any consideration of Russian views whatsoever. Then, on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama insisted that the decision had nothing to do with the Russians, saying it was merely a bonus if Russia's leaders ended up "a little less paranoid" about the United States. Speaking to CBS's "Face the Nation," Obama said, "My task here was not to negotiate with the Russians. The Russians don't make determinations about what our defense posture is." If Gates and Obama are to be believed, the decision to halt deployment in the Czech Republic and Poland was made without any consideration of Russian views whatsoever. It was simply the result of technical and military analysis, and the question of how the major power in the region — Russia — might react simply wasn't considered. That is difficult to believe — or more precisely, if it is true, it is startling in the extreme. On Oct. 1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany will be meeting with Iranian representatives. According to decisions made last April, in which Obama participated, the United States will advocate intense sanctions against Iran, absent significant progress with Tehran over its nuclear program. Without Russian cooperation, those sanctions would have little effect. Therefore, the Russian view of the United States matters. The United States was facing the choice of either abandoning the idea of effective sanctions — a move with significant consequences on a number of levels — or inducing the Russians to collaborate. The idea that no one in the senior ranks of the administration ever considered, during discussions of the BMD issue, that eliminating BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic was a core Russian demand stretches credulity. The issue is not, as the president has put it, one of Russian paranoia. The Russians might well be paranoid, but that paranoia is not a matter of incidental importance to the United States. Unless the United States is abandoning the idea of sanctions and moving to accept Iran as a nuclear power, or has already made the decision to strike Iran, Russia — paranoid or not — is important to the United States. We suspect that it crossed someone's mind that in making this move now, the United States would be capitulating to a major Russian demand. Certainly, it could not have escaped the administration's attention that the decision, regardless of how it was made, would be seen by all as a response to the Russians. This is how the Poles and Czechs saw it; it is how the Russians saw it; it is how any reasonable observer would have seen it. That's because this was a core Russian demand and because the announcement came two weeks before the meetings on Iran. In foreign policy, it is always important to be prepared to pretend that the elephant is not in the room. But there has to be a touch of plausibility to the pretense. In this case, the problem is that the administration's description of how it made this decision indicates breathtaking incompetence. In saying they took the decision without considering diplomatic consequences, U.S. officials are claiming the administration doesn't know how to play major league ball — and seem proud of that. Obviously, the administration knows how to play the game and obviously, officials were extraordinarily aware of the impact the decision would have in Moscow, Warsaw and Prague — and in Tehran. The timing of the move certainly was not calculated without consideration of its effect on the Russian position, come Oct. 1. The only thing we can figure is that the administration didn't anticipate the effect in Washington, where there was substantial congressional unease over the matter. Perhaps Gates and Obama were trying to deal with that rather than with foreign reaction. In any event, it was a very strange set of statements. “Plausible deniability” emphasizes the term "plausible." This was merely denying implausibly.

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