Concessions to Reality

The decision to abandon this shield was the right one as far as both allied security and Russian relations were concerned, and it should be defended on those grounds. Moscow is certainly pleased that the proposed shield will not be built, but it would be a serious mistake to expect Russian help in squeezing Iran on its nuclear program. Russia has no reason to do this. If the administration insists that Russian support for tightening sanctions or isolating Iran is the “payoff” for abandoning the shield, the decision will be judged to have been a quid pro quo that gained us nothing. If we see it instead not as a concession to Moscow, but rather as a concession to reality and common sense, it does not have to produce Russian cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program to be regarded as the correct and appropriate move.

That’s the concluding paragraph of Daniel Larison’s recent piece on scrapping missile defense stations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

He’s right: the decision was a sensible one (missile defense is something that the Japanese, Taiwanese and Israelis are interested in for actual defense against real threats, not something that actually matters to defending Poland or the Czech Republic, and needlessly provoking any country – particularly a country we are trying to get things out of, like Russia – is pretty stupid) but it isn’t going to pay any obvious dividends. Which points up the difficulty of this administration’s political situation.

The Obama Administration’s situation may be compared with that of the Nixon Administration. Both Presidents were trying to manage a period of retrenchment in foreign affairs, dealing with a situation in which American influence and leverage had significantly contracted, and facing the prospect of further contraction that needed to be carefully managed. They were also both dealing with a period of traumatic economic change (accelerating inflation in Nixon’s case, a near-depression in Obama’s); with foreign wars that they did not initiate but had committed to winning and, in some manner, escalating in order to win (Vietnam, Afghanistan); and with a radical change in the global currency regime (in Nixon’s case, the demise of the gold standard; in Obama’s, the coming demise of the dollar as global reserve currency) – all of which provides some context for why each period was a period of retrenchment.

We should expect that there are going to be a lot of “concessions to reality and common sense” in the next few years, and the frustrating part is that we’re not going to get anything obvious for these concessions. Russia, for example, is going to keep pursuing its interests – and the aggressiveness with which they pursue them will probably mostly relate to their internal political situation rather than their perception of either American “will” to oppose them or American “goodwill” towards them. That’s going to make it very easy for the administration’s political opponents to make the argument that “if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take the yard” even if no actually yards are literally taken.

It will be interesting to see how President Obama handles the tricky domestic politics of the trickyinternational situation he finds himself in.