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On Point

September 2009: Obama Diplomacy in Wretched Miniature


by Austin Bay
March 18, 2015

Poles knew September 2009 would be a bitter month. It marked the 70 anniversary of their country's great geo-political catastrophe, the start of World War 2 and their nation's imprisonment.

The 21st-century bitterness Poles did not expect was President Barack Obama's shocking Sept. 17, 2009, announcement. To "reset" U.S.-Russia relations, Obama said he had terminated U.S. participation -- which meant Polish participation as well -- in what Poland and other U.S. allies regarded as an essential NATO and European defense program: deploying long-range anti-missile missiles in Poland (Ground Based Interceptors).

The peaceful order Obama said his decision would achieve dismayed Poles who know from experience that the Kremlin's version of a reset usually involves Russian military resurgence, not peace. Obama's abrupt termination of a major, negotiated multi-lateral policy worried them. His failure to consult Warsaw infuriated them. History added injury; the date on which he announced his flip-flop appalled them.

Obama claimed "reset" relations would start an era of transformative cooperation. Yes, transformative has utopian echoes. During the Cold War, the Kremlin anathematized U.S. missile defense. Though NATO's limited system was designed to defeat, attack from Southwest Asia (Iran?) Moscow opposed it. This U.S. concession would elicit Russian cooperation, Obama said. Together we will solve global problems.

Polish dismay with US optimism precedes Obama. In 2001 they cringed when George W. Bush said he looked in Vladimir Putin's eyes and got "a sense of (Putin's) soul." Poles saw a KGB colonel gulling a naive American.

In 2005, Putin opined that the collapse of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century." Re-read this essay's first sentence. Poles spent five decades in chains, Nazi chains, and then the Communist chains of Putin's beloved Soviets.

In 2009, when Obama canned Poland's GBI's, Putin's increasingly violent regime was murdering journalists, curtailing free speech and jailing political opponents.

But Obama wanted a deal. We now know what Putin wanted: Crimea, Ukraine and possibly more.

Obama's deal worried Eastern Europeans. Can we trust his America? NATO's pre-2009 missile defense program epitomized multi-lateral negotiation. Poland would host 10 GBI's -- right, just 10. GBI's intercept enemy missiles in space. The Czech Republic would host their radar complex. If a warhead evaded the GBI, it would face theater defensive missiles (Navy Standard-6, Army THAAD) and short-range systems (Patriot PAC-3) deployed throughout Europe. The good news is that some of these systems are being deployed.

As for fury: Obama's announcement was classless tactical diplomacy. Your friends deserve a heads up, not a double-cross, yet the candidate who promised to practice "smart diplomacy" didn't discuss his about-face with affected nations. A wave of unease rippled through Eastern Europe. Would Obama's Great Power America do as it pleased, even if it meant ignoring the concerns of its vulnerable allies?

And now his appalling ignorance of relevant history: The world remembers Sept. 1, 1939, the day Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany attacked Poland and started WW2. Global memories of the Eastern front, however, are less clear -- but not in Poland. Poles recall, with informed anger, Sept. 17, 1939, the day Joseph Stalin's Communist Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east.

World War 2 taught Poland that collective defense matters. Weak nations need strong allies. But in a world where destructive actors possess long-range missiles and have the intent to use them, an adequate defense requires international participation. The Poles understand that a robust missile defense is a key element in collective defense protecting constructive nations from destructive actors. They also understand that constructing and deploying complicated weapons requires a long lead-time.

Obama's September 2009 concession didn't transform. It may yet yield strategic dissaster. Moreover, he does not learn from his mistakes. Utopian goals guide his Iran policy. He breaks promises on whim, and today allies wonder if Obama would honor America's NATO commitment. History? A day with significance in Poland? Hey, a day is just 24 hours, man.

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