It was the year 2009, and it was official. The Obama administration shelved the anti-missile shield from Poland and Czech Republic and let it marinate in an attic jar. The move was done with an unparalleled subtlety, on the same day that Poland was commemorating the 70th anniversary of its World War II invasion by the USSR. After months of ballet pirouettes in public statements where the Eastern Europeans were “reassured” that their concerns on the issue were totally groundless, the inevitable (and predictable) happened. The Obama administration, citing budgetary reasons, upended the agreements with two NATO allies by cancelling the Bush-era project that angered Russia.
In turn, the administration officials gave blurry promises for a “better defense” against the nuclear wannabe Iran. The reactions were quick to follow. Said Lech Walesa, former president of Poland: “I could tell from what I saw what kind of policies President Obama cultivates. I simply don’t like this policy, not because this shield was required [in Poland], but [because of] the way we were treated”.
Did this pop up as a big surprise, considering Obama’s “new philosophy” of appeasing Russia? Not really. Starting with the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Obama has been in a constant crusade of “resetting” the relationship with the Russian “partner” at the expense of his unsuspecting allies.
Never mind the Eastern European allies’ contribution for the war against terrorism. In February 2003, French president Jacques Chirac scolded Eastern Europe for becoming the Trojan horse for U.S. interests in Europe, when thirteen countries in the region (seven of which were being E.U. candidates) signed two public letters of support for the American stance on Iraq. Eventually, Romania and Bulgaria had to wait until January 2007 for their full E.U. membership. By mid-2005, Poland and Romania were among the top five non-U.S. military forces in Iraq, with almost 1,000-person contingents each, being topped only by U.K., South Korea, and Australia.
In the meantime, the president was vigorously shaping his own policies by initiating, not necessarily in this chronological order, the following landmark activities: lifting the embargo with communist Cuba; patting the back of the then Venezuelan socialist dictator Hugo Chavez at international meetings; bowing to the Saudi monarch; agreeing to a humanitarian-cause-related photo op between former president Bill Clinton and North Korean communist dictator Kim Jong Il.
He also sent State secretary Hillary Clinton on extensive and exhausting tours to some of the president’s familiar places, like Africa and Southeast Asia, while Vice President Joe Biden was creating “Saturday Night Live” titles during his famous Ukrainian tour, along with castigating the then-constitutional Honduran administration for expelling former president Jose Manuel “Brother O’ Chavez” Zelaya. Oh, and let us not forget, he kept a low profile during the Iran post-election mass demonstrations against the same nuclear wannabe regime whose potential attacks the Eastern European shield was initially designed against.
Ironically, reasons for Obama to amend his policies were coming from all over the place. In January 2009, the Italian geopolitical journal LIMES published an article about “EuRussia” accompanied by a map of Europe titled “Obama’s Nightmare”, with four country blocs highlighted in various colors: Russia and its “partners” (in yellow and orange: the CIS and some Western states), its “Axis friends” (in red: most of the West European states), “neutral states” (in green: Turkey and some Balkan states) and its “enemies” in blue: Great Britain, Sweden, the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Georgia).
Also, in June-July the same year, the German Marshall Fund sampled twelve European states (seven Western and five Eastern, including Turkey) on Obama’s policies and reached some paradoxical conclusions: in Eastern Europe pro-American attitudes were in the high 70%, and “Obamamania” was at mid-60%, while in Western Europe “Obamamania” was at mid-90%.
In July, president Obama was addressed in an open letter signed by 22 prominent Eastern European leaders, who voiced their concern that the region had ceased to be a priority on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The letter warned against “the misguided notion” that the region was largely stable and on a secure path to full trans-Atlantic integration. In reality, this traditional pro-American region was increasingly critical to the United States’ cave in to Russia’s “revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics.”
Had the administration wanted to show contempt for faithful allies in Eastern Europe, there was no better way than scrapping the planned anti-missile shield. It was obvious that, at that moment and even later, the United States did not consider Central and Eastern Europe as a priority any more. Russia had gained and therefore was about to feel more empowered. But the Americans do not need to be patted on the back by the Russians and be told “Good job!”. Was this a quid pro quo? Most probably not. Andrej Nesterenko, the then Russian foreign affairs spokesperson, was quick in denying the existence of a “secret deal.” In any case, if Russia had pulled out its troops from Georgia, there would have been genuine reasons to suspect a quid pro quo.
In fact, this was Obama’s free gift to the Russians, offered with a red bow on a golden plate way before the September 2012 president’s tete-a-tete with Medvedev at the Seoul nuclear safety summit and during his “open mike” genuine moment of sincerity.
While it was obvious that U.S. world policy had turned 180 degrees since Obama assumed office, Russian policy continued to look disturbingly unchanged.
In terms of firsthand knowledge of communism, America should have given more credit to Eastern Europe. After all, the Eastern Europeans’ deeper understanding of the multiple facets — theoretical, clinical, and practical — of a totalitarian ideology and society exceeds by far Obama’s occasional exotic incursions in the Marxism-pigmented readings during his university years. And this goes for Obama’s international and domestic policies. His obstinacy in promoting collectivist ideas of a “fair share” type has managed to produce confusion in America and hilarity in Eastern Europe. In this context, Jimmy Carter’s 1977 remarks about being “free of that inordinate fear of communism” appear as an equally sinister and pathetic joke.
President Obama began his mandate thinking he would “change” American society, with the “hope” that he looks like Will Smith, as the hero of Independence Day or Morgan Freeman, as the visionary president in Deep Impact. It has not happened that way. When he alienated the allies by allying himself with the aliens, he ended up looking more like Terry Crews, as the goofy president Camacho in Idiocracy. In the end, even Camacho came back to his senses. Let us all hope that we, as a nation, do not end up living those “idiocratic” apocalyptic times.
TIBERIU DIANU is a scholar in East European studies and author of several books and articles on law and post-communist legal reform. He currently lives in Washington, DC and works for various government and private agencies.