One of the biggest fairy tales in foreign policy told to Americans over the past several years has been the Bush administration’s proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe. None of the host countries ever wanted the defense system for the same reasons as the Bushies – the fear that Iran might one day be able to strike the European continent with medium-range missiles – they wanted it as a deterrent to Moscow. I think even if you gave truth serum to some of Bush’s foreign policy advisors, they would say it was about Russia all this time, not Iran. Contrary to what critics might say, Obama’s cold shoulder toward Eastern Europe is not the 2009 equivalent of the Chicken Kiev speech. Missile defense is a bad idea, plain and simple.
Of course, the reason many opponents were against it was from a science standpoint: the shield was still prone to glitches. Still, I never bought that argument. It made no sense from a geo-strategic or geo-political standpoint. It did not enhance European security. It did nothing to deter Russia or Iran to stand down. Now Moscow just apparently ferries its arms to Iran more discreetly, the better not to piss off America or Israel, via big ships that sometimes get hijacked by Estonian pirates.
Obama was right to reject the missile shield but not because the science of it was somehow questionable (even though it was). Eastern Europe seemed to become a laboratory of sorts for the worst of the former administration’s foreign policy experiments. We established “black sites” there for CIA officers to interrogate and perhaps torture detainees. We backed whatever politician was in power who was the most anti-Russian, no matter their democratic credentials (Georgia’s Saakashvili comes to mind). It got so bad that the last time our vice president visited the region, he was reduced to the stature of a post-college frat boy, commenting to his Ukrainian counterpart how gorgeous the women there are (forgetting how his comments might be misinterpreted in a popular destination for sex tourists).
Obama should be able to mend relations with his Czech and Polish counterparts (even if the capitals of Eastern Europe were among the quietest places on his election night last fall). He can do that in ways big and small. He can be firmer with Russia, on arms control, energy security, and whatnot. And he can keep the NATO card on the table, for countries like Ukraine (if anything, it provides an incentive for better governance). But the last thing he should do is back a badly flawed idea, just to curry favor in a few European capitals or appear tough on Tehran or Moscow. That has disaster written all over it.