Obama Abandons Poland

ObamaOn the 70th Anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland, Barack Obama announced that he was abandoning Bush era plans to install ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, pleasing Moscow and igniting fear among our Eastern European allies.

In my New Atlanticist essay “Obama Abandons Poland and Czech Missile Defense,” I take exception to the strategic rationale offered by the president and his ministers and chalk it up to ideology, instead.

The strategic situation has not changed radically in the thirteen months since the system was first announced, although May’s launch of a Sejil-2 missile did change the urgency of getting a system in place. What has changed is the political landscape. Obama is continuing the Democratic Party line, going back to the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative by Ronald Reagan, of skepticism on the merits of missile defense.

While I believe Russia had little to nothing to do with this, they will see it as appeasement and a reward for bullying.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Given that ballistic missile defense is a technology that doesn’t actually work, I see this less as “abandoning Poland” and more as “shutting down a government boondoggle.”

  2. I am sure that the Poles and Czechs are disappointed, but isn’t it almost certainly the case that said disappointment will have more to do with what they will perceive as the lost economic windfall from the bases than it will from any loss of security. Both are members of NATO and surely the lack of a missile defense program will not mean an abandonment of either country. One wonders if there won’t be some other defense-oriented actions to benefit these states before all is said and done.

    And really, the rationale (as I understood it) for missile defense was to protect Europe from rogue states (i.e., NK and Iran), so how this would make them less secure vis-a-vis the Russians is unclear to me (indeed, didn’t the Bush admin state that the shield was not about Russian missiles?.) And to be clear– I recognize (and agree with you) that you state that you think this all has very little to do with Moscow.

    I agree that it is more to do with policy preferences. I am not sure I would call it ideological, however, as opposition to a missile shield tends to be vested in skepticism as to whether it will work or not, yes?

  3. Mithras says:

    I fail to see how a military solution would have addressed a political and economic threat to Eastern Europe. Not everything can be solved with a gun.

  4. Crust says:

    What Alex Knapp and Steven Taylor said.

    James when you write this:

    Russia … will see it as appeasement

    you seem to be assuming that a missile defense program would provide some kind of realistic defense against a Russian missile attack. Do you honestly believe that? It’s possible to imagine (years and billions of dollars from now) ballistic missile defense getting to the point where it’s useful against a rogue regime with a couple of nukes (say NK or Iran as in the official Bush justification), but surely you don’t think it’s credible against Russia which has thousands of missiles? Shooting a bullet with a bullet is hard. Adopting countermeasures is easy.

  5. Crust says:

    Some sanity on this issue from Tom Nichols at the Corner (of all places):

    Despite the outcry that President Obama has sold out the Europeans and caved to the Russians by cancelling missile defenses in Europe, it was the right thing to do. Those defenses were not going to work (or work well enough or soon enough to matter in any major crisis with Iran)…

  6. Alex, but it does work, at least outside the echo chamber.

    Dr. Taylor: Surely? The fact that you have to use this word invites doubt.

    Crust – God I love the argument that any solution is just too far away to implement. Kind of like being told 10 years ago that we shouldn’t drill for oil in Alaska because it would take …, wait for it …, 10 years to see the oil.

  7. the q says:

    We shouldn’t leap to conclusions. This could’ve been used as a bargaining chip to get Russian cooperation on Iran.

    By publicly and unilaterally disbanding this shield, it may be seen prima facie to be appeasement, but perhaps there is a greater reason to do this, especially with the G20 summit coming up in Pittsburgh and Putin and Obama meeting face to face.

    Maybe they will have some joint pronouncement at that time which will shed some light on the backdrop for this decision.

  8. James Joyner says:

    I, too, am skeptical of the effectiveness of missile defense, although locally based systems are likely better than continental shields. But the Russians have been worried about them for going on three decades now, so they clearly provide some leverage. Unlilaterally abandoning them sends a bad signal.

  9. Perhaps a joint pronouncement of “peace in our time” is forthcoming.

  10. Dr. Joyner, skepticism is good and healthy. There is an excellent argument to be made regarding whether or not it is a cost effective solution to ballistic missile defense, but that is a long way from a flat denial of feasibility like Alex’s, that (unfortunately) seems ideological to me, though his mileage may vary.

    The unskeptical attachment to MAD by some is something I’ve never fully understood.

  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Alex, if anti missile system does not work. Why would the Russians care if we put them where ever we please. Maybe the Russians know a little more about the workings of our system than you do and prefer them not to be in place. After all, who cares about something that does not work? Demonstrations I have seen looked pretty effective to me but maybe they were photo shopped.

  12. DC Loser says:

    The system that SECDEF Gates proposed, using a distributed network of sensors and shooters actually is an improvement in terms of capabilities over the proposed land based system Currently, the most robust part of our missile defense network against long range missiles (MRBMs and higher) is the sea-based SM-3 system on SPY-1 Aegis based naval platforms. They have the longest history of successful intercepts. The land based systems like the GMD system deployed in Alaska has not had a good track record, and they have not been tested against robust countermeasures suites which we’ll more than likely see in any engagement scenario. This move makes political and technical sense.

  13. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    I should have been a little more careful in my wording–a hazard in blog commenting. I should have stated that the technology that was going to be employed in Poland doesn’t work. I consider “working” to be the same standard as the Pentagon’s — 80% effectiveness. The tech that was to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic only achieves about 61% effectiveness–and that’s with no countermeasures employed. It’s a boondoggle.

    Pay attention to the Pentagon and you’ll see that the missile shield for Europe isn’t being scrapped. Instead the shield is going to focus more on the deployment of mobile sea and land based SM-3 interceptors, which do have a greater than 80% effectiveness rate.

    In otherwords, the President is bypassing a boondoggle stationary shield that is ineffective and replacing it with a mobile, more effective force.

    Is that a BAD thing?

  14. Alex Knapp says:

    Zelsdorf,

    Because the ground-based interceptors that were to be in place are, themselves, large ballistic missiles. The Russians don’t believe that we use them for defense. They think we use them for ATTACK.

    How would you feel if Russia started putting ground-based, long-range ballistic missles in Mexico?

  15. John Burgess says:

    Major, major props to the Administration on timing! Nothing beats symbolism like rubbing your nose in a catastrophe.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps a joint pronouncement of “peace in our time” is forthcoming.

    Oy…first the president was Hugo Chavez…then he was Benito Mussolini…then he was Adolf Hitler…now he is Neville Chamberlain…I can’t wait to see who he is next…

  17. Well no, Neville Chamberlain thought Poland was worth fighting for.

  18. Brett says:

    The tech that was to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic only achieves about 61% effectiveness–and that’s with no countermeasures employed. It’s a boondoggle.

    Do you have a link to the source you’re using on that? Once you’ve got the installations in place in Poland and the radar in place in the Czech Republic, it’s pretty straightforward and easy to simply increase the number of interceptors significantly.

    I, too, am skeptical of the effectiveness of missile defense, although locally based systems are likely better than continental shields. But the Russians have been worried about them for going on three decades now, so they clearly provide some leverage. Unlilaterally abandoning them sends a bad signal.

    The Russians fear it because they know it works – the Soviets have a system around Moscow (which they’ve let degrade a bit) that goes back to the 1970s. They also know that the US is in a better position, financially and technically, to deploy a good missile defense shield, which is why they’ve tried to politically undermine it for three decades (seriously, read Gates’ memoirs. He mentions it as some point during negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev).

    Truth be told, even if we’d put it in Great Britain and Germany, they’d still be bitching about it.

    On the 70th Anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland, Barack Obama announced that he was abandoning Bush era plans to install ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, pleasing Moscow and igniting fear among our Eastern European allies.

    What is it with Obama’s team and messing these things up? I still remember the fiasco that was Brown’s gift basket.

    Shooting a bullet with a bullet is hard. Adopting countermeasures is easy.

    Not really. We’ve had successful skin-on-skin hits going back to the 1960s (look up Nike-Zeus, or better yet, read Bruce Biggs’ book on the subject, Shield of Faith). And counter-measures are vastly over-rated; the current systems actually have a very easy time telling the missiles apart from things like chaff and decoys.

  19. Alex, better, but writing less effective would be still be better than writing ineffective. As I wrote, I am open to arguments to do it better, faster, and cheaper.

  20. Alex Knapp says:

    Brett,

    I’m using the DOD’s own numbers.

    Charles,

    “Better, faster, cheaper” is exactly what Team Obama is doing wrt missile defense.

  21. DC Loser says:

    Not really. We’ve had successful skin-on-skin hits going back to the 1960s (look up Nike-Zeus, or better yet, read Bruce Biggs’ book on the subject, Shield of Faith).

    Those were nuclear interceptors. They didn’t need to be “close” to work. You know what they say about horse shoes, hand grenades, and nukes.

    And counter-measures are vastly over-rated; the current systems actually have a very easy time telling the missiles apart from things like chaff and decoys.

    Really? Are you up on the latest countermeasures techniques? I’m “in the business” and this is no trivial matter for missile defense designers and engineers. Actually, drives them to many sleepness nights.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Well no, Neville Chamberlain thought Poland was worth fighting for.

    Yea. I wonder how many of the right wing freedom brigade would actually put their asses on the line for Poland. My guess is that is a meeting you could hold in a broom closet…

  23. Oh dear, are you saying that the right wing freedom brigade needs to come out of the closet?

  24. How would you feel if Russia started putting ground-based, long-range ballistic missiles in Mexico?

    Or Venezuela? Which is a better analogy for the United States than Mexico vis-a-vis Russia and Poland. Now the Soviet Union, that’s a different matter.

  25. Brett says:

    Those were nuclear interceptors. They didn’t need to be “close” to work. You know what they say about horse shoes, hand grenades, and nukes.

    They had them, but they didn’t need them to get a hit – hence the “skin-on-skin” label.

    Really? Are you up on the latest countermeasures techniques? I’m “in the business” and this is no trivial matter for missile defense designers and engineers. Actually, drives them to many sleepness nights.

    That’s not what I’ve been hearing.

  26. Brian Knapp says:

    That’s not what I’ve been hearing.

    Do you have a link?

  27. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Seems we have a lot of experts here on what is probably pretty secret technology. Alex, we fly B-2s to any spot in Russia and bomb the shit out of them. There is no need to station ballistic missiles in Poland. You can back Obama’s play if you like but it will be seen by most Americans as faulty foreign policy put in place by a group who seems to think it has the ability to talk enemies into doing things they are not prone to do. Or Obama really is Marxist sympathizer who admires autocrats like Putin and would like to emulate them here. By weakening our strategic ability, America can finally be put in her place. Some are too blind to see what is happening right in front of them. Obama should be known by the company he keeps. Those people are not patriots.

  28. Crust says:

    James Joyner:

    I, too, am skeptical of the effectiveness of missile defense

    So, just to be clear, James, your view is that on the one hand this policy shift is so radical and misguided it constitutes “abandon[ing]” Poland and the Czech Republic, presumably to the clutches of the Russian Bear. Sort of Obama as the uber-Chamberlain. On the other hand, you are “skeptical” the system would work; in other words you agree Obama is really saving money here in addition to no longer pointlessly pissing off the Russians. Your two views are a little hard to reconcile.

  29. Crust says:

    And by the way, if we’re “abandon[ing] Poland”, why are we still deploying Patriot missiles there?

  30. Chamberlain never abandoned Poland. In fact, it was Poland that brought England and France formally into the war.

  31. Tlaloc says:

    Not really. We’ve had successful skin-on-skin hits going back to the 1960s

    With the part you are leaving out being that we’ve never had any success against actual targets and only marginal success against planned shots with homing devices and no countermeasures. So, yeah, if our enemies are kind enough to tell us when they plan to attack, to only attack us with a single missile, to load that missile with a transponder for our convenience and not to bother with flares or chaff or reflective coatings or any of a thousand ways to trip up the missile defense system…

    …then we can hit them about 50% of the time.

    The system has never worked. While you tout the “fact”sheet from the totally unbiased people in charge of the program I’ll simply rely upon the congressional research service which found:

    The data on the U.S. flight test effort to develop a national missile defense (NMD) system is mixed and ambiguous. There is no recognizable pattern to explain this record nor is there conclusive evidence of a learning curve over more than two decades of developmental testing. In addition, the test scenarios are considered by some not to be operational tests and could be more realistic in nature; they see these tests as more of a laboratory or developmental effort. Success and failure rates (and their technical causes) have shown relative consistency through this period.

    Analysis of flight test data shows that the U.S. effort to develop, test, and deploy effective BMD systems based on this concept has had mixed and ambiguous results. The actual performance in war-time of one kinetic-energy system currently deployed by the United States (i.e., the Patriot PAC-3) is similarly ambiguous.

    Report here

  32. An Interested Party says:

    So…since the president “abandoned” Poland, when do the Russians invade again?

  33. Charles,

    You wrote:

    Dr. Taylor: Surely? The fact that you have to use this word invites doubt.

    I fear I do not follow your point, but just to clarify: yes, I think that Polish and Czech membership in NATO would guarantee defense against a Russia incursion. I don’t, BTW, expect any such incursion. As such, I do not think that a lack of missile defense system (which ostensibly was to protect Europe from Iran and North Korea anyway) equates to “abandoning Poland” (with all due respect to James and his post title).

    James,

    the Russians have been worried about them for going on three decades now, so they clearly provide some leverage. Unlilaterally abandoning them sends a bad signal.

    This is a fair point, and the one part of this that gives me pause. Still, unless Obama is engaging in a currently unknown quid pro quo, I can’t get too upset that the move makes Moscow happy. My view is that in this case it is less the missile defense systems per se that upset the Russians as much as it was a US military presence that close to their borders. And even if it is the missile defense system, it isn’t like this moves means that there will be no more research into the topic.

    Ultimately for my perspective I favor the move primarily because it should mean not spending money on a project that I believe to be of limited efficacy against a menace that does not, at the moment, even exist.

  34. Davebo says:

    This quote says it all really.

    While I believe Russia had little to nothing to do with this, they will see it as appeasement and a reward for bullying.

    It’s been happening over several weeks really. Defending Tea Party types that say outrageous things claiming they are just the fringe while ignoring the fact that the leader of the group said some pretty outrageous things on national television.

    Although a decorated soldier 17 years ago, James has basically lived off the largess of the Defense Industry since.

    So who could be surprised that he supports a land based missile defense system that despite nearly 30 years of development and hundreds of billions spent to date, still doesn’t work even without the variable of countermeasures being included in testing.

    It’s called a paycheck people. I write them to myself and they vary based on the business billed that month.

    James earns his, to a great extent, here. And don’t confused this PR page with a blog.

  35. anjin-san says:

    Oh dear, are you saying that the right wing freedom brigade needs to come out of the closet?

    No, the ones who are in the closet are the gay service members who are actually prepared to risk their lives for freedom, as opposed to talking big about it on a blog.

    How sad that these patriots are forced to live a lie for the privilege of serving their country.

    Its interesting that so many of the self-declared “great Americans” on the right are homophobes. What exactly are these uber-tough armchair freedom fighters afraid of?

  36. […] Outside the Beltway […]

  37. James Joyner says:

    So, just to be clear, James, your view is that on the one hand this policy shift is so radical and misguided it constitutes “abandon[ing]” Poland and the Czech Republic, presumably to the clutches of the Russian Bear. Sort of Obama as the uber-Chamberlain. On the other hand, you are “skeptical” the system would work; in other words you agree Obama is really saving money here in addition to no longer pointlessly pissing off the Russians. Your two views are a little hard to reconcile.

    My concern is with the optics rather than the policy per se. I’m agnostic on land-based vs. sea-base BMD systems. The problem is that we made a promise to Poland that gave them a heightened sense of security in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia. We’ve now abandoned that promise in the wake of clamoring from Moscow, in exchange apparently for nothing.

    As I say in the linked post, I don’t think Obama is doing this because of Moscow’s hectoring. But Putin and co. will still see this as vindication.

  38. Rick DeMent says:

    Alex, if anti missile system does not work. Why would the Russians care if we put them where ever we please.

    To snooker people like you into thinking that they are actually afraid so we will divert $$$ from places that might actually do some good into nonsense like BMD.

  39. Crust says:

    James Joyner:

    in exchange apparently for nothing

    Why is this supposed to be apparent? I see e.g. Joe Klein makes the opposite assumption and speculates as to what (rather than whether) Obama got in exchange. I frankly don’t see how either conclusion is obvious from the public record, though Klein’s guess seems the more plausible one to me.

  40. […] Joyner | Friday, September 18, 2009 I’ve been critical of the optics of President Obama’s decision to abandon missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic on the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland. But I disagree […]

  41. Joe Klein and his speculation. Now I have to clean the coffee off my monitor.

  42. The Realist says:

    We need, it seems to me, to wait and see what happens in the upcoming nuclear disarmament talks and the talks on sanctions against Iran before we can draw every an initial line under our analysis of this decision.

    My suspicion is that Obama is going to be shown up not mainly for “abandoning” Eastern European allies, but for completely failing to get anything in return for it.

    The White House hasn’t said anything about whether it hopes for a quid pro quo yet – presumably because it fears looking foolish when one fails to materialize – but I notice that senior Democrats in the Senate have been saying that this decision was, in fact, to do with relations with Russia and not the efficacy of various missile defence technologies.

    And then, I also note, Putin has responded by simply calling for more concessions. Your move, Mr. President…

  43. Brett says:

    So, yeah, if our enemies are kind enough to tell us when they plan to attack,

    Once the missiles are up in the air, they follow a pretty straightforward pattern of movement that’s easy to track with modern radar (hell, it was possible to track it decades ago).

    to only attack us with a single missile, to load that missile with a transponder for our convenience and not to bother with flares or chaff or reflective coatings or any of a thousand ways to trip up the missile defense system…

    The actual missiles themselves can be distinguished from chaff, flares, decoys, and the like by the way they move, the heat, and so forth. As I said, to have a really effective decoy you’d basically need something that moves exactly like the real thing – and if you’re going to bother with that, you might as well just make it another missile.

    Hell, chaff and flares don’t even work against the most modern SAMs these days.

  44. […] interpreters in Afghanistan.  Time permitting, we’ll work in some talk about the decision to abandon the Bush missile defense plan for Poland in favor of a sea-based […]