America calls off plans for missile defence in Europe, pleasing peaceniks but worrying hawks
Maybe some jam tomorrow, but none today. That is the American message to its most stalwart allies in the ex-communist world as Barack Obama's administration shelves plans to deploy ten interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic.
The timing of the announcement is poor, coming on September 17th, the anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland in 1939. In a country highly tuned to symbolic snubs, it matters that nobody in Washington seemed to know or care about that.
The news was broken clumsily too: the Czech prime minister was woken by a brief phone call from Mr Obama the night before the decision was made public. Poland is at least gaining some promise of a beefed up American contribution to its security. The Czech Republic receives nothing, for now, in exchange for its loyalty to a controversial scheme that was supposedly a symbol of America's commitment to the region. Atlanticist politicians in Prague feel humiliated by that.
From a practical point of view, the American change of plan is understandable. The technology of the planned scheme was unproven, and the Iranian threat it was supposed to counter only nascent. "A scheme that doesn't work, against a threat that doesn't exist, in countries that don't want it" was how Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hawkish former national security adviser to the Carter administration, has described it. As with the decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s, something that was meant to strengthen the Atlantic alliance ended up putting it under strain. Czech and Polish public opinion was increasingly sceptical, or outright hostile to the bases. Other countries worried that pro-American hawks in ex-communist countries were risking an unnecessary confrontation with Russia.
America's new plan is different. Mr Obama described it as a "stronger, smarter, swifter" defence of American forces in Europe and of American allies. Reinforcing existing defences against possible long-range Iranian missiles is seen as a problem for the future, given that America now says the Iranians are working more on short- and medium-range missiles than on long-range ones. For now, the extra deployments will be less capable sea-based Aegis missiles which could shoot down any medium-range Iranian missiles aimed at Europe. After 2015, with further development, the scheme could involve land-based versions of the SM3 missile that would, the Pentagon says, ultimately cover all of Europe by 2018.
That would probably start off in bases closer to Iran but it might include central Europe too. "We will look forward to working with Poland about how they might fit into that," says a senior State Department official. If a future Czech government wanted to take part, it would also receive a sympathetic hearing.
The administration has tried to sweeten the pill by reiterating a promise to place a battery of Patriot short-range missiles to defend Warsaw. Poles expect that these will be American-financed, part of NATO's commitment to the country's defence, and fully integrated with Poland's own air-defence system. American officials are more cagey, saying only that there is still plenty to discuss.
Russia has welcomed the decision to shelve the existing scheme. It is unlikely to be pleased about any replacements based anywhere in the former Soviet empire, which the president, Dmitry Medvedev, has described as a sphere of Russian "privileged interests". If America can obtain Russian help in squeezing Iran's nuclear and missile programmes, and if Russia also backs down on its threatened deployment of missiles in the Kaliningrad region, which borders Poland, it would be easy for the administration to walk away even further away from missile defence.
Although Poles may bemoan the timing, America's calendar may be shaped by the forthcoming UN General Assembly. Russia and China have been reluctant to agree to further sanctions or other pressure on Iran. Mr Obama may hope that by demonstrating a willingness to engage Russia in Europe he might have a better chance of co-operation in the Middle East.
But the big task for America now is to reassure the Poles and other twitchy ex-communist countries such as the Baltic states, that it remains committed to their defence. It stresses that plenty of high-level structures exist to discuss these worries and that NATO is actively rethinking its plans for defence in the east. The question is what will really be on offer in these discussions. The east European countries, squeezed between an increasingly close Russian-German friendship, look anxiously towards America to safeguard their interests. But is America looking at them?
(From Economist.com and Mr Lucas' blog)
Pie in the sky