Has the Obama Administration Changed Its Mind over Central European Anti-Missile Defense?

Returning to my €S post from a well-deserved summer break, and thus resuming my scrutiny of European affairs, my attention was piqued in particular by the entry on Matthew Yglesias’ weblog entitled US to Scrap Eastern European Missile Defense.

“Could this be true?” I wondered. I have certainly covered this whole Czech-and-Polish missile defense system topic here before, most notably in a post from last March entitled Poles Down the River?, and my common theme has been the Obama Administration’s steadily-waning support for going through with this deployment. Yglesias – evidently a non-Polish-speaker – can only provide as reference a link to a report from the DefenseNews site that itself cites “[l]eading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza” as the source for its information. Here we can do somewhat better, of course, and even with five days’ delay it was relatively easy for me to use the Internet-tubes to find the on-line article in question (Poland without shield, by the newspaper’s Washington correspondent Marcin Bosacki – athough feel free to insert “the” or “a” there in the title before “shield,” as the Polish language ordinarily uses neither word explicitly).

Bosacki’s lede: “Cancellation of USA plans to build an anti-rocket shield in Poland and the Czech Republic is practically a foregone conclusion – so maintain our sources in Washington.” Then again, those “sources” are somewhat thin on the ground here. Most of the heavy lifting is provided by one Riki Ellison, once a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers but now head of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, which lobbies for missile defense generally and so, one can assume, also for this deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic in particular. One has to assume he is passing on all this information in sorrow at how events are turning out.

Deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic is no longer in the administration’s plans, Ellison claims, in favor of deployment of the anti-rocket missiles to ships at sea and/or to Turkey, Israel, or even Balkan countries. How to account for the change in policy? In Ellison’s view, the Russians have gotten inside Obama’s head: his “new team takes Russia’s arguments more into account” and “Obama’s people judge that many of the world’s problems will be easier to solve together with Moscow.” (This happens to reflect, by the way, the discussion in my prior Poles Down the River? post where I passed on word of a “secret letter” Obama had supposedly sent to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev offering to cancel the deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russian assistance in dealing with Iran.) Admittedly, Bosacki does bring up in this piece “other interlocutors of ours” (that is, other sources, although completely unnamed), which for their part assert that the Russians did have something to do with this significant policy-shift, but that it was more down to both the deployment’s estimated cost and to doubts (always very valid) about whether the missile-defense system proposed to be installed would ever actually really work.

Take My Word For It, People: It’s Dead

Not to worry, though, because Marcin Bosacki followed up two days later (i.e. last Saturday, August 29) with another piece firmly stating (as its very title) The shield is dead. To further emphasize how he is standing by his reporting, this on-line article features his very own head-shot at the top-left, grinning out at the reader in an honest, credible way. His lede here: “Reality is that this government of the USA will not build the [anti-missile defense] shield in Poland or the Czech Republic.” In the two intervening days he has improved somewhat the authorities he can cite as sources for this report – the name Riki Ellison is no longer anywhere to be found. Instead he cites a recent conference of high-level generals and defense contractors on the subject of anti-missile defense, held in Huntsville, Alabama, at which the subject of Poland and the Czech Republic simply never came up, whereas at the same conference last year it had dominated the proceedings. Hmm, okay, that does seem to indicate something, and to add to that Bosacki also brings up another of his “informers, close to the Obama administration,” who tells him “now it’s clear: the plan for Poland and the Czech Republic is dead.”

As to why things have taken this turn, he is still not sure. It could be the Russians; it could be the doubts about the whole project, in some part already openly expressed, on the part of Obama’s highest advisors. Will the two countries gain some kind of “sweetener,” he wonders, to compensate them for this disappointment – for this deployment that they agreed to and, in both cases, gained internal political approval for in the face of determined opposition? In any event, in his view the whole affair rather has znaczenie drugorzędne, that is, the whiff of second-rate treatment.

The Patriots Are Late

Finally, in this context a look is warranted at an earlier article published by Gazeta Wyborcza’s great competitor as a national daily newspaper for Poland, Rzeczpospolita. It’s clear that Rzecz got seriously scooped by Gazeta reporter Bosacki on this whole story; nonetheless back on 17 August it did have a story about the Patriot anti-aircraft defense missiles, operated by US Army personnel, that are supposed to accompany that deployment of anti-rocket missiles to Poland (Will the patriots [i.e. anti-aircraft missiles] for Poland not make it in time?). Now, it was really the Patriot deployment that the Polish authorities were looking forward to, much more than the anti-missile system itself, precisely because those bring with them US military personnel and thus a much firmer US commitment to Poland’s defense in case of attack – because any such attack now has a much greater chance of killing not just Poles, but Americans. Unfortunately, as Rzeczpospolita reporter Jacek Przybylski notifies us here, negotiations for that deployment are not making much progress. For example, there’s little likelihood that any Patriots will be deployed in Poland by the end of this year, as was once the intention; the US Army needs 90 days in any case after signature and ratification of the appropriate agreement just to bring about the deployment of those units from out of Germany, meaning that ratification would have to be completed in late September just to get some Patriots to their planned base in the Warsaw area by Christmas, and the negotiations are hardly that far along.

Why are things taking so long?, is the question Przybylski poses right in the middle of his piece. Of course, we think we already know the answer to this – two weeks after this article came out – from Marcin Bosacki’s subsequent reporting over at Gazeta Wyborcza. But at least Przybylski himself also comes close, citing his own source in the form of Aleksander Szczygło, head of the Polish National Defense Office: “For sure one cause is that the new American administration still has no opinion on the necessity of building a shield.” Of particular concern seems to be the project’s cost, which a recent article in the Washington Post revealed will be easily over $1 billion. And indeed, even now that remains Washington’s official position: We haven’t made any decision yet. Gazeta’s Bosacki encountered this stance first-hand: as he relates in his original article, he put in a request to the US Department of State for a discussion of Polish-American relations in general, but was told that no representative would be availalbe for that “until the review of the strategic concept of the shield had been completed.”

Thanks to his reporting – if we can trust it – we now know better: there will be no anti-missile-system deployment to Central Europe. This is clearly a good thing, as anyone who has closely followed my extended treatment of the subject here will realize: it was never by any means certain that this technology would actually work in achieving its ostensible aim – i.e. intercepting rogue nuclear-tipped missiles emanating from Iran, and maybe from North Korea (!) as well – but what it would do, and already did, was annoy the Russian government mightily, to no real useful geopolitical purpose. Still, the Obama adminstration’s task going forward is now to find a way to ease the very considerable embarrassment that is sure to ensue among the Polish and Czech governments as the reality of this 180-degree turn to non-deployment eventually emerges into the public sphere.

UPDATE: Here is the New York Times coverage, which I had missed. Naturally, the State Department spokesman’s position is that no decision has yet been made. The fact that jumps out at me is the $4 billion cost for the anti-missile deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic through 2015, as calculated by the Government Accountability Office.

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