Poland, Our Great Strategic Partner

Is this worth poisoning the well?

Is this worth poisoning the well?

Naturally, there’s been a lot of neocon frothing about the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the the controversial missile defense system, an expensive, ineffective boondoggle, whose primary virtue to conservatives was that the Russian’s don’t like it. Of course, even if it the project did work, and was cost-effective, there would still be little strategic rationale for its existence, as Michael Goldfarb inadvertently points out here (delighting in the fact that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk didn’t take Secretary Clinton’s call):

Tusk, of course, denies that the Obama’s capitualation [sic] is a defeat for his country. And what else can he say? But the fact that he turned down a call from both the secretary of state and the president last night tells the whole story — the Poles aren’t happy, and no one can say otherwise with a straight face (not even Tusk). Tusk did subsequently talk to Obama, but Hillary is still waiting for a call back. I’m sure he has your number Mrs. Secretary.

Leaving aside for the moment that Tusk did eventually talk with President Obama, since when are we basing our foreign policy around what makes the Poles happiest? This isn’t the Cold War, so we’re not trying to explicitly contain communist Russia; by our own admission, the system wouldn’t have by itself done anything to defend against Russian aggression; and it’s not exactly like Russia is about to march on Europe, so we’re left with the rationale of pleasing Poland. On the other hand, we actually do need Russia to work on issues of actual strategic importance like Iranian containment  (the putative raison d’etre for the missile system in the first place) and nuclear non-proliferation.

I mean, I’m not trying to be callous — just channeling my inner realist here — what do the Poles provide for us that their “being happy with us” is worth worsening relations with a legitimate strategic partner? European academic Dr. Olaf Osica makes the case:

By the same token, the Obama team would make a major mistake if it ignored America’s role in European security. The American presence, be it military or political, delineates West from the East and defines geopolitics from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Rather than providing a shield against rough states, Europe views the Missile Defense project as a vehicle for extending America’s influence on – and commitment to – the continent.

Participation in the Missile Defense system therefore represents status and power in a changing Europe – not just the security of allies. In this way, Missile Defense should be viewed, as W. Wohlforth has described, as “an existential threat to the status (but not the existential security) of other traditional Great Powers. To the extent that they prize status above material rewards, policymaking elites in other states may be willing to forgo potentially beneficial regional cooperation with the United States if it comes at the expense of their collective self-esteem.”*

In other words, the American rationale for strategic partnership is that Poland is positioned to be a proxy for the United States to flaunt strategic interests out of spite. You know, piss everyone off and show them who’s boss just because we can. The basic idea being that once recognizing who’s the boss, the entire world will just bend to our will, or something. (You might recognize this strategy from such neocon foreign policy successes like The War In Iraq: Transforming the Middle East and We’re All Georgians: Mucking Around in Russia’s Sphere of Influence)

Anyway, in addition to having a sort of inane circular quality (we piss them off because we can, and because we can, we piss them off), wouldn’t it just be a lot simpler to achieve strategic goals by working with the relevant countries?

NB: I don’t mean to diminish Poland’s contributions in Afghanistan, where it has sent 2,000 troops as part of the NATO fighting force, but it does highlight a few issues. One, Poland is a NATO ally — if Russia were to attack Poland, we’d be obligated by the terms of the alliance to defend them. So, in addition to other missile deployments the Obama administration has committed to, it’s not exactly like we’re leaving them defenseless. Two, if Russia is cooperative in working on the Iranian issue and on reducing the world’s level of nuclear warheads, would it be worth 2,000 less Polish troops? That’s the question.


Georgian Cageyness

I found this piece on the alleged Russian coup against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to be pretty entertaining.

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia said Tuesday that it had foiled a Russian-backed plot against the government as tensions rose a day before the scheduled start of NATO military exercises.

Georgian forces surrounded a tank unit that it accused of being involved in the plot and President Mikheil Saakashvili entered the base to negotiate the unit’s surrender. In a televised address, Mr. Saakashvili said the plot was an attempt by Russia to derail the planned exercises, which he called a “symbolic event.”

A symbolic event indeed. I won’t pretend to be a particularly well informed observer of politics in the Caucuses, but this reeks. For one, Russia already demonstrated its ability to impact events in Georgia when they directly invaded last summer to face little resistance and only verbal condemnation from the international community. It’s pretty clear who wears the pants in the Russo-Georgian relationship, and I frankly find it rather hard to believe that Russia would support a pathetic attempt of a coup that would a) be likely to fail, b) make Saakashvili look stronger after being summarily whipped during last summer’s engagements and, most importantly c) help Saakashvili make the argument that Georgia belongs in NATO.

Meanwhile, it’s far more plausible to envision a scenario where Saakashvili, who is not exactly known for being the beacon of liberty he would have the West believe,  would help facilitate a risible coup where he could literally swoop in and negotiate surrender, bolster his “strong leader” bona fides, and demonstrate the danger Russia poses to fledgling democracies that seek NATO membership. And this “caught on video tape” business described below, I think, makes it more sketchy.

Details of the alleged plot were murky Tuesday afternoon. Georgia released a series of videos in which Gia Ghvaladze, a former major in the Georgian special forces, was shown trying to recruit assistance in overthrowing Mr. Saakashvili’s government on behalf of Russia. Mr. Ghvaladze was arrested Monday night on charges of organizing a military mutiny, according to police.

I mean, seriously? Am I to believe Russian espionage is on roughly the same competence level as R. Kelly? I know there have been rumblings about Medvedev’s growing power, but Putin is ex-KGB for Christ’s sake. This response is telling:

Russian officials denied any role in the unrest. Alexei Pavlov, a spokesman for President Dmitri A. Medvedev, called the accusations “too stupid for us to comment on.”

Yes, that sounds about right. I’m not sure how to conclude this post, so I’ll just make the quick point that this is one of the reasons why we shouldn’t be trying to rapidly expand NATO.

NATO Enlargement

Didn’t catch this yesterday:

BERLIN — The United States has started an unexpected diplomatic initiative in Europe, urging NATO allies to offer Georgia and Ukraine membership in the alliance without going through a lengthy process and fulfilling a long list of requirements, NATO diplomats said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had long telephone conversations with French, German and other senior European envoys, asking them to agree to bypass the formal application process, the diplomats said.

A few of the other Baltic states (naturally) support NATO enlargement, but most European countries including France, Italy, Spain, and Germany oppose the deal, among other things, on account of Russia’s strenuous objections. This sounds right to me. It seems the primary rationale for entry would be adding more ardently pro-US voices to NATO at the cost of seriously — and needlessly — complicating Russian relations. If Georgia entrance had been fast tracked, the U.S. would have been obligated by the terms of NATO membership to offer military assistance against Russia during the spat this summer, which was largely provoked by Georgia.

Saying and Doing

Ben Smith, usually confined to writing on political non-stories, has a write up on an emerging foreign policy challenge for Obama: Russia. There’s a fair amount of foreign policy related stuff covered in the story, but I wanted to focus on this:

On the day after he won the election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered an aggressive warning that he would respond to a planned NATO anti-missile shield by moving nuclear weapons to its western enclave of Kaliningrad. And the sword-rattling has continued: Tuesday, the Russian navy began joint exercises near Caracas with Venezuela’s military.

Gary Schmitt of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute predictably suggests that yielding on the missile defense shield would be read as a “sign of backing down,” but it’s important to remember the expansion of the shield was a needless provocation by the Bush Administration in response Russian retaliation in Georgia, and what’s more, doesn’t even work. There’s been a lot of talk about how reversing the Bush policies and this seems like a perfect opportunity to forge a cooperative relationship with the Russians, who have the capacity to play a key role in nuclear disarmament and engagement with Iran.

UPDATE: The story also deals with Obama’s views on NATO enlargement, which I think to be a pretty bad idea at the moment. Here’s why.

Rube Goldbergavich Device

Forget Russian nukes, it’s time to focus on proliferation of convoluted crackpot theories. In an interview with CNN, Vladimir Putin accused George W. Bush of encouraging Georgia to attack South Ossetia to in turn provoke Russia to respond, which would in turn support John McCain’s presidential aspirations by playing into McCain’s Cold War era rhetoric. Woah.

While it’s true that irresponsible and half-baked U.S. posturing probably emboldened Georgia to attack (like when John McCain responded to Putin’s April dictate of support for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and “telephoned [Georgian president] Mr. Saakashvili to offer support, and then told reporters on April 17 that ‘we must not allow Russia to believe it has a free hand to engage in policies that undermine Georgian sovereignty.'”)

You Ask, I Respond

So commenter “Sonic Chamber” takes me to task on my criticism of bellicose rhetoric aimed at the Russians and some assertions I made about U.S.-Russia relations more generally. In the spirit of encouraging participation, I’ll answer Sonic Chamber’s questions/grunts of disagreement.

You’re right, it is in a “manner consistent with history in the Caucuses”. That makes it…ok?

And as for Russia’s crucial role in stemming nuclear proliferation.

No they won’t

In a vacuum, no, Russian aggression — even if framed in a long history of conflict — is not OK. The question of course is, what can we actually do about it? The reality of the situation is essentially nothing. We can’t, and won’t go to war with Russia. What’s more, other sanctions like kicking Russia out of the G8 would allow U.S.-Russia relations to further devolve.

Though “Sonic Chamber” disagrees with the role Russia will play in halting Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the fact remains that Russia is really the only other massively nuclear power in the world. As such, their cooperation in any sort of non-proliferation agreement is essential, a fact that even the Bush administration recognized as recently as April. Attempting to move forward without Russian cooperation on this front would be tantamount to creating an anti-flopping accord in the NBA without the cooperation of Manu Gnobli.

Now, that answers the first two questions/grunts of disagreement, and I’ll attempt to answer the last question.

You’re right. If Russia is “pissed off” at the thought of Poland defending herself, we should bow to that. After all, Russia has the right to attack Poland. What gives Poland the right to try to prevent Russia from attacking Poland?

I suppose there would be some truth to this if the missiles Poland will now house were actually Polish. But they’re not, they’re American, and the assertion that their stated purpose is to protect Europe from Iranian missile launches is almost laughable. Rather, as is highlighted by the timing of the agreement, the missiles are essentially a U.S. response to Russian muscling around in the Caucuses. As I stated earlier however, there really isn’t much to be gained by doing this, and in fact, there is much to loose. Remember, historically contextualizing Russia’s aggression in the Caucuses provides vital perspective: this conflict stems from long standing ethnic divisions, provocations, a history of violence, and contested political authority. None of these factors apply to Poland, and the belief that Russia would invade Poland is simply daft. What’s more, Poland is already a member of NATO, and as such, already enjoys a great degree of protection from Russian threats.

Lastly, I suppose “Sonic Chamber” may have meant that Russia won’t play a role in stemming nuclear proliferation because “Sonic Chamber” believes invading or bombing Iran would be a better solution. Aside from the fact that bombing Iran would likely only delay any nuclear program and likely only give Iran more incentive to pursue nuclear armament, this would further weaken international institutions whose cooperation in ending worldwide nuclear proliferation is crucial. Invading Iran would be eve more misguided in light of the fact that when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, it will have taken 9 years and dollar figures in the trillions to stabilize a weaker country while driving off allies and allowing al-Qaeda to regroup and grow in a nuclear armed country.


All told, I thought Biden’s speech — once it got going — was pretty good and obviously quite important in its repudiation of the McSame foreign policy. This, however, I found puzzling.

In recent days, we’ve once again seen the consequences of this neglect with Russia’s challenge to the free and democratic country of Georgia. Barack Obama and I will end this neglect. We will hold Russia accountable for its actions, and we’ll help the people of Georgia rebuild.

What exactly is he proposing here, invading Russia? There seems to be this recent tendency to imbue Russia with intentions remeniscent of the Cold War, but this seems really more to be a little back yard enforcement in a manner consistent with history in the Caucuses. Russia will prove a vital ally in stemming Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and senselessly pissing them off with arguably the worst bluff in history — agreeing to a missile defense deal with Poland to ostensibly protect the U.S. and Europe from Iran (I mean, seriously, does anyone believe that?) probably isn’t the best way to build cooperation.  This sounds too much like McCain’s saber rattling, so I’d be interested to hear what Biden thinks in greater detail. Oh well, at least he didn’t threaten to kick Russia out of the G8 or boycott the 2014 Olympics.