19 September, 2009

Right decision, wrong way?

In Fareed Zakaria's newest column, the self-styled realist par excellence agrees with me: "By canceling plans to station antiballistic-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Re-public, President Obama has traded fantasy for reality."

However, he also thinks that Obama botched the execution, and needlessly pissed off our Polish and Czech allies. I'm sympathetic to that charge, especially since the administration's execution has seemed a bit off on a number of occasions. (Think Clinton's "reset button" fiasco.) Zakaria cites the fact that the administration announced its decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, which is admittedly a bit of a douche in the face, in the technical jargon of foreign policy wonks.

But when Zakaria says that "the Obama administration did the right thing for the right reasons, in the wrong way. It needs to fix the fallout and move on" he's overstating the case. Yes, the administration should have put this announcement off to a less symbolic date. But even if it had, I don't see the Polish and Czech leadership being any less pissed off. The crux of the matter is that those leaders spent a lot of their political capital pushing this ill-advised missile defense on their citizenry, which was and remains very skeptical of the idea. An American president going back on Bush's unfortunate assurance was going to be deeply embarrassing to the Eastern European leadership no matter how soft the pitch.

Now, that's not to apologize too much for Obama's early tone-deafness. This could have been smoother, and I think the administration has to recognize that and will go out of its way to provide other kinds of assurances to the Eastern Europeans. But in general, this dissonance is an inevitable product of Bush having made an unsustainable promise that had to be walked back, and only in a very minor way the product of how Obama has handled it.


Cassady said...

I think at least part of it revolves around exactly who we're supposedly pissing off here. I'm not as sympathetic to your shared charge, since I've been hearing a lot about how realistically half of Poles support the current move.

I'm not sure....

Elliot said...

Yeah, a large part of the dynamic seems to be that the missile defense system wasn't very popular among the citizenry, and so the leadership was taking a pretty big risk by pushing for it. Thus, losing the support of the US on it hurts them more than it might have if the program was more broadly popular. (For the record, I don't know enough about EE politics to know why such a shield, despite its impracticality, wouldn't be more popular among the more-right-wing-than-average Czech and Polish people.)

But from our point of view, this might end up being more of a feature than a bug. The Polish and especially Czech leadership are pretty crazy right wingers (The Czech PM picked a fight with the O admin right out of the gate) and so maybe if this weakens them or even leads to a more centrist leadership taking their place, it would be a net good for us.

Cassady said...

Ok, I see a bit more now what you were getting at originally. And, I also can't see the downside to having less crazy right-wingers in positions of power world-wide.