With President Barack Obama facing Republican charges that backing off a missile shield in eastern Europe is appeasing Russia and abandoning Poland, European officials are strongly applauding the American decision.
German and French diplomats see the White House move as changing a US policy imposed unilaterally on Europe – and allowing greater running room with Moscow on issues from Iran to North Korea, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, and with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But Alexander Rahr of the German Council of Foreign Relations, a Russian expert, says the original US missile shield plan was ill-conceived. He says that in eastern Europe and Russia the decision to shelve it is raising a new question: "Is Obama doing this out of American strength, or out of American weakness?" He adds, "I know that sounds pretty 19th century. But that's the question."
Last week, the White House decided to shelve an expensive and untested missile shield, agreed to by the Bush administration days after Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008. The US now supports smaller, tested defense systems, unambiguously deployed to intercept short and mid-range Iranian rockets.
"The strategy of the Bush team was confrontation with Russia," says Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesman of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). "On the shield, we had a different view from the beginning. Most of the political elite here agrees with Obama. We never saw the necessity for the new missiles being developed. We agree on the Iran threat, but not with this instrument."
"It is a good decision," offers a German diplomat. "No, it's a great decision."
Why Europe is relieved
European officials were skeptical of the missile shield for several reasons: They argued it was technically dubious, did not protect Europe but was mainly planned to stop ICBMs launched against America, that its costs were high, that it was imposed on Europe without proper consultation, and that it gave Moscow an issue to (fairly or unfairly) gripe over.
"The shield does not realistically protect the states it is designed to protect," says Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations here. "It isn't solving anything, and there are downsides."
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) strongly criticized the White House missile shield decision on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, saying: "This is going to be seen as a capitulation to the Russians…And at the end of the day you empowered the Russians, you made Iran happy and you made the people in Eastern Europe wonder who we are as Americans."
Yet a survey in the Warsaw daily Rzeczpospolita over the weekend indicated that about half of the Poles agree with Obama's decision to abandon the missile shield, while 31 percent disagreed. Some analysts argue that Poland and the Czech Republic will now have to work out their security with other European states along with NATO, and not in a special relationship with Washington – and that this may prove useful in the long term.
That was the position of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski on Monday, who told Polish radio that "I hope this [missile shield decision] will prove a salutary shock, especially for the right end of Poland's political spectrum," adding it would bring an adjustment to "the dream of basing everything on a bilateral alliance with the United States."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Financial Times oped today countered the view that the US is "shelving" missile defense, writing that, "We will deploy missile defence that is more comprehensive than the previous programme, with more interceptors in more places…."
Mr. Rahr in Berlin argues that Russia in recent years has adopted a problematic psychology, he calls it "a Weimar complex" – an inherently strong but disorganized country feeling slighted and ignored – and looking for perceived slights and grievances at every turn.
"If it is within the Russian concept of threat, the missile defense should be part of consultations. Why is Poland and America deciding this for Europe?" Rahr asks.
In Paris, Le Monde editorialized in a similar vein over the weekend: "We must hail the decision by Barack Obama to abandon the anti-missile shield project that was to be deployed in Europe. This costly project whose very efficiency was at doubt was deeply divisive among the European and fed a heavy "Star Wars" climate in Russia. Here, as elsewhere, the American president has chosen détente and negotiation."