War Stories

Bush Flunks Diplomacy 101

How to infuriate Russia and the European Union and waste $10 billion a year.

As Casey Stengel once screamed, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”*

It’s one thing to waste $10 billion a year quixotically developing a missile-defense system; President Bush clearly announced from the get-go that he was determined to do that, and Congress has been complicit in his quest.

But to spark a diplomatic crisis with Russia and the European Union while doing so—that takes bungling of an unusually intense quality.

On the verge of signing a deal to place 10 anti-missile missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, the Bush administration is getting hammered on all sides. The European Union is furious that Bush is circumventing NATO and dividing the continent. Russia’s defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, is calling the plan “a serious destabilizing factor which could have significant impact on regional and global security.”

In response, the White House is pledging to discuss the terms with NATO and rushing to offer the Russians rewards if they drop their opposition.

“We were a little late to the game,” the New York Times quotes a senior administration official. “We should have been out there making these arguments, making the case more forcefully before people began framing the debate for us.”

This is like a major-league manager saying, “We were a little late in putting a first baseman on the field.”

Yes, the Bush team has a lot of problems on its plate. But Rule No. 1 in the game of American foreign policy is: Always keep an eye on Russia. This is especially true in handling anything to do with Eastern Europe or nuclear attacks—and doubly so when it involves Eastern Europe and nuclear attacks.

It’s a complicated world out there, full of newly emerging dangers; the formula for dealing with them is still a work in progress. But when it comes to dealing with Russia—much less Europe—the rulebook has been around for decades, its pages well-thumbed and dog-eared, the margins richly annotated; it’s the stuff of Diplomacy 101.

Even Bush was pretty good at this game at the outset of his presidency. When he entered office in January 2001, his top priority was to build a missile-defense system. Doing so would involve withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the centerpiece of U.S.-Russian arms-control accords dating back 30 years. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to renounce the treaty from the beginning. But then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Bush to engage with the Russians and to calm their fears before taking such a dramatic step. So, Bush visited Putin in June. Powell initiated negotiations for what became the Moscow Treaty, which sharply reduced both sides’ offensive nuclear arms. By the time Bush gave formal notice that he was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, on Dec. 13, Putin took the news with a shrug. He’d been persuaded that the move was not part of a renewed buildup against Russia. And there wasn’t much he could do about it, anyway; his army had crumbled, his economy was a wreck.

Now, the geopolitical backdrop has shifted. Thanks to soaring oil prices, Russia’s economy is booming, and its nationalist confidence is hardening. Its commercial ties with Iran have given Putin bargaining leverage over the West on a strategically vital issue. In short, if Bush wanted his cherished missile-defense plan to gain an easy entrée to Russia’s backyard (or, to see it another way, the front yard of its former empire), he should have come “to the game” on time; he should have followed the standard playbook.

This dust-up isn’t really about missile defense. Ten anti-missile interceptors are hardly “destabilizing”; even if they worked perfectly, and even if Bush meant to use them to intimidate the Russians (as in the stalest Soviet-leftover paranoid scenarios), they’d hardly nullify the thousands of nuclear warheads that Russia still has on its missiles. Even the Russians sometimes admit as much.

Nor, despite the rhetoric, are these interceptors really meant to protect Europe. In a phone interview today, Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s former chief of weapons testing, recalled the initial discussions of the European missile-defense plan in 2003-04. The focus, he says, was to shoot down missiles launched by Iran as they passed over Europe on their way to the United States. The interceptors—again, assuming they worked (a doubtful proposition)—could provide protection for some parts of Europe, but that wasn’t the intent.

What the Russians really fear about this plan is the vast American presence that goes with it. The anti-missile interceptors—the same models as the ones now in Alaska—are gigantic, as big as the old intercontinental ballistic missiles and, like them, buried in substantial blast-hardened silos. To deploy 10 of them, along with a huge X-band radar system, will require an enormous military base, heavily staffed, apportioned with the usual complement of U.S. Air Force infrastructure and American amenities.

In short, the United States would be gaining a substantial foothold deep inside Eastern Europe, closer than ever to the Russian border.

The members of the European Union are upset for similar reasons. Just as the EU is nurturing its own integrated defense council, and as NATO is taking a commanding role in Afghanistan, here come the Americans—so it seems—negotiating a separate deal with the Czechs and Poles, splitting not only the European Union but also the continent.

Did Bush or his aides intend to foster this impression? Probably not. But anyone with the slightest skill at diplomacy—anyone with the glimmer of a strategic outlook on the world—would have anticipated this reaction and pre-empted its arousal.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Europe today, trying to unruffle feathers and offering a plan to share missile-defense technology with Russia. The response thus far has been cool. The question, as one Russian official put it, is who controls this technology and where.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, hardly an anti-Westerner, caught the flavor of the conflict in an interview with the Russian news agency Ria Novosti, “It’s all about influence and domination in Europe.”

If Bush and his team want to play that game, they’d better learn how.

Correction, April 26, 2007: This piece originally misquoted Casey Stengel’s famous line as “Doesn’t anybody know how to play this game?” ( Return to the corrected sentence.)