Yesterday, I noted that Brent Scowcroft supports President Obama’s missile defense decision. Another distinguished member of our International Advisory Board, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has voiced his support as well — albeit in an extremely colorful manner that’s not particularly flattering to the president.
In an interview yesterday with The Daily Beast‘s Gerald Posner, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor both lambasted the Bush missile program as “based on a nonexistent defense technology, designed against a nonexistent threat, and designed to protect West Europeans, who weren’t asking for the protection” and excoriated the Obama administration’s handling of the matter.
Does scrapping the missile program weaken our defense options in Europe vis-à-vis the Russians?
Not at all. What is left is militarily sounder. It gives the U.S. more options while still enhancing America’s ability to develop more effective defense systems, which is what the Russians really dislike. But now they have less of an excuse to bitch about it.
What about the way we informed our allies of our decision?
The way it was conveyed to the Czechs and Poles could not have been worse. It involved [laughs] waking up the Czech prime minster after midnight with a sudden phone call from President Obama. The Polish prime minister was at least allowed to sleep late. But as far as Poland was concerned, unfortunately, poor staff work did not alert the United States that today, September 17, is a particularly painful anniversary for Poland. In 1939, the Poles were still fighting the Germans when on September 17 the Russians stabbed them in the back. To the Poles, that is something very painful. And since they misconstrued—and I emphasize the word “misconstrue”—that the missile shield somehow strengthened their relationship with the U.S. when it comes to Russia, it was immediately suggestive of the notion of a sellout. It’s the wrong conclusion, but in politics, even wrong conclusions have to be anticipated.
How is it possible that the State Department did not bring up the sensitivity of this day to the Poles?
Lousy staff work. Period. I don’t know who precisely to point the finger at. It was obviously not anticipated in this case.
But while Dr. Brzezinski shares my concerns about the optics of the policy, he’s not at all concerned about its impact on U.S.-Russia relations.
The Russians have their own interests in Iran, which are far more complex than the simplistic notion that the Russians want to help us with Iran. The Russians have a complicated agenda with Iran. They also know in the back of their heads that if worse came to worse—and I am not saying they are deliberately promoting the worst—but if worse came to worse, which is an American-Iranian military collision, who would pay the highest price for that? First, America, whose success in ending the Cold War the Russians still bitterly resent. And we would also pay a high price in Iraq, Afghanistan, and massively so with regards to the price of oil. Second, who would suffer the most? The Chinese, who the Russians view as a long-range threat and of whom they are very envious, because the Chinese get much more of their oil from the Middle East than we do, and the skyrocketing price would hurt them even more than us. Third, who would then be totally dependent on the Russians? The West Europeans. And fourth, who would cash in like crazy? The Kremlin.
Regardless of the latter’s criticisms about presentation, Obama has to be pleased to be getting the support of Scowcroft and Brzezinski, men who were luminaries when he was just a teenager and have remained giants on the international stage for more than three decades. That Scowcroft is a Republican and Brzezinski is from the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party— and both have simply unassailable records as Cold Warriors — only add to the value of their endorsement, as it buttresses the president against charges of appeasement.
Further, as Thomas Ricks points out, it’s not as if Obama made this decision in a vacuum.
President Obama remains a novice in foreign affairs, but he is backed by people who know this subject intimately from a variety of angles — James Jones (national security advisor, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe), Gen. Cartwright (vice chairman of Joint Chiefs, former head of U.S. Strategic Command) and Robert Gates (defense secretary, and lifetime Russia expert).
One presumes that they were all either on board with the decision or at least not sufficiently animated in opposition to derail the policy change.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.