Is Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the deployment of missile defence in central and eastern Europe another sign of how the US has been weakened by the Iraq disaster? In a very obvious sense, yes.
George Bush denounced the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001. He announced plans to install a missile defence system in Europe at the high-water mark of the Republican right’s triumphalism.
“Missile defence isn’t really meant to defend America,” the neocon Lawrence Kaplan explained. “It’s a tool for global domination.”
That’s exactly why Russia has consistently objected to the deployment of anti-missile missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, just as it has opposed the expansion of Nato to its borders.
In August last year Russia backed its words with actions, militarily crushing Georgia, whose president Mikheil Saakashvili had set himself up as the US’s attack dog in the Caucasus.
In the wake of this war, Bush, backed by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and central and eastern European governments, heaped denunciations on Russia. But nothing actually happened.
German chancellor Angela Merkel blocked any serious retaliation by Nato or the European Union.
Having got away with bashing Georgia, Dimitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin have now received a major concession from Obama, with last week’s scrapping of the missile defence deployment.
The Republicans were quick to denounce this. John Bolton, Bush’s bizarre choice as ambassador to the United Nations, said, “I think this is a near catastrophe for American relations with eastern European countries and many in Nato.
“It was the kind of unilateral decision that the Bush administration was always criticised for and I think the clear winners are in Russia and Iran.”
It’s true there has been a lot of whining by Czech and Polish politicians. They deserve no sympathy.
In supporting missile defence, as in sending troops to Iraq, they defied the views of their own populations. Maybe they will now begin to develop a foreign policy that doesn’t consist merely of crawling to the US.
But there is more involved in Obama’s move than US weakness. He is pressing for serious negotiations about reducing the existing nuclear powers’ arsenals.
The aim is to weaken the argument used by states like Iran to develop their own nuclear capabilities. For these talks to succeed, Russia has to be kept sweet.
Scrapping missile defence in eastern and central Europe is a way of doing this. It may also help to strengthen the US’s campaign to isolate Iran.
There are also military arguments for cancelling the existing plans for missile defence. The technology has a patchy test record. It is designed to deal with long-range missiles while the Pentagon now believes that the main threat from Iran will take the form of short and medium range missiles.
US defence secretary Robert Gates last week outlined plans to deploy the Aegis SM-3 missile interceptor system mainly on ships in the eastern Mediterranean to deal with this alleged danger.
So what seemed like a peaceful gesture towards Russia involves tightening the military encirclement of Iran.
According to the Washington Post, “a second phase in about 2015 will field an upgraded,
land-based SM-3 in allied countries, and discussions are underway with Poland and the Czech Republic on basing the missiles in their territory.
“In 2018, the third phase will deploy a larger and more capable missile, which will allow the defence shield to protect Europe and the US against short and intermediate range rockets and, eventually, intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
So missile defence is dead, long live missile defence. Some experts think that the US’s technological lead over Russia and China is so great that it is close to being able to destroy their nuclear forces in a first strike. From this perspective, Obama’s plans are more about entrenching US domination than abandoning it.