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After You, Mr. Putin

Robert Joseph, Eric Edelman & Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

Less than three years after President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia the greatest geostrategic threat facing the United States, U.S. and NATO leaders have declared Putin’s Russia just that — a major threat to Europe and beyond. General Philip Breedlove, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, said recently at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, “Since the beginning of 2014, President Putin’s Russia has abandoned all pretense of participating in a collaborative security process with its neighbors and the international community.” The inability of President Obama and his team to understand Russian motives and intentions was clearly reflected in the disastrous Obama–Clinton “reset” policy — a policy that not only failed to improve relations with Russia, but also seriously undermined the U.S. strategic posture generally.

For instance, the New START Treaty has led to a significant reduction in deployed U.S. strategic forces, while Russia has been engaging in a major effort to modernize and upgrade its nuclear forces — new missiles, new submarines, and a planned new bomber. The White House line that, under the treaty, Russian forces would be reduced by one-third has proven to be false, as was predicted by a number of those who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In fact, as a consequence of New START, Russia now has more deployed strategic warheads than the United States — making even more significant Moscow’s advantage of 8 or 10 to 1 in theater nuclear weapons. And while the treaty does provide for “boots on the ground” for inspections, what we have in practice is managed access: U.S. inspectors are permitted to see what Russia is willing to expose. The Obama administration’s recent finding that Moscow is in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty shows that Russia’s longstanding pattern of cheating on arms-control agreements continues despite on-the-ground inspections.

Numerous concessions on missile defense have also demonstrated the Obama administration’s willingness to compromise U.S. security interests in its feckless quest to curry favor with Moscow. David Rothkopf’s recent book, National Insecurity, provides new evidence of what many had long suspected. Buried on page 234 is the information that “John Kerry had his first meeting as Secretary of State with a man who was to become one of the international leaders with whom he worked most closely, Sergey Lavrov. Both sides dutifully reported the discussions were constructive, and by March 15, 2013, in the latest twist in the schizophrenic U.S. approach to its missile defense plans, the Obama administration effectively cancelled the final phase of the European-based defense system. According to a senior NSC staffer, this was ‘due largely to the fact that it had become an impediment to every area of important cooperation we had going or might need, including both Iran and Syria.’”

After abandoning the original missile-defense site in Europe in 2009, Obama officials argued that the new European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) would still defend the continental United States against a future long-range Iranian missile. This protection was to come from a new interceptor missile, the SM3 IIB, which would be deployed in the last stage of the four-phase EPAA. But a number of missile-defense advocates, having watched President Obama eliminate many of the most advanced strategic-defense programs intended to provide capabilities to keep pace with the threat, suspected the new plan was primarily influenced by the White House, not the Defense Department. To those skeptics, the Obama plan seemed to serve two purposes, neither one being to protect the U.S. from Iranian ballistic-missile attack. Rather, the plan appeared designed, first, to blunt accusations that the administration was leaving the U.S. vulnerable, and, second, to serve as trade bait to induce Moscow to continue engaging in arms-control negotiations to further President Obama’s naïve and dangerous goal of seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. This more cynical explanation is supported by Rothkopf’s revelation.

The characterization of the Obama approach to strategic missile defense as “schizophrenic” is accurate only in the sense that its words of support bear no resemblance to its actions. When judged by its budget cuts and program cancellations, the administration has been entirely consistent. For six years it has gutted U.S. capabilities to defend the homeland. This year’s budget request to Congress provided an increase over last year’s request, but it is still too little, and a look at the budget plans going into the future shows that it is a one-year anomaly. Arms-control proponents have always opposed the United States’ expanding missile defense because they believed it would upset Russia and undermine the potential for additional agreements to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Russia has taken full advantage of President Obama’s concessions on arms control and missile defense and has given up nothing of real substance in return. For Moscow, it has been a win–win: The U.S. has cut both its strategic missile-defense capabilities and its nuclear forces, while Russia has increased its capabilities in both categories. Every U.S. concession has led to the demand for more concessions. When Moscow learned Washington had canceled the fourth phase of its European plan, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the cancellation would have no effect on Russia’s standing policies. He added: “That is not a concession to Russia, nor do we regard it as such. All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a U.S. and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain.”

A recent letter from members of Congress to President Obama strikes the right tone. It curtly states: “[T]he policy of trading missile defense to adversaries like Russia and China is a failure.” It then goes on to urge the president to direct Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to deliver a plan to Congress to get the U.S. missile-defense system back on track. The president should comply, but it’s doubtful that he will.

When President Obama was unwittingly caught on an open microphone telling then–Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that after the 2012 presidential election he would have more “flexibility . . . especially on missile defense,” he gave a rare peek at the liberal playbook for diplomacy. That playbook promotes the idea that maybe — despite all of history’s lessons, and the American people’s objections — if Washington forgoes opportunities to expand American strength, dictators and despots will admire and appreciate the gesture and do the same. The truth, of course, is the opposite. As most Americans know, someone will play the role of global leader, and if the American president isn’t willing to do it, Mr. Putin is happy to step in and fill the void.

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