Foreign Affairs

Learning on the Job: Is Obama a ‘Risky Fellow?’

Iran — armed with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons — would be a threat that could coerce Europe and the United States in all aspects of their Middle Eastern interests unless they are adequately protected by a missile defense.  Even before nuclear weapons can be mated to the Iranian arsenal of ballistic missiles, nuclear-determined Iran may well be able to close the Strait of Hormuz as retaliation for enhanced sanctions that might be approved by the US and its European allies.  Through that Strait, of course, passes about 40% of the world’s oil supply.

Without missile defenses, Europe and the US might be easily coerced by such threats. In addition, as Robert Bell — an SAIC vice president stationed in Brussels — explained at a conference last month, European nations such as the Czech Republic saw the missile defenses being planned for that country as critical to cementing the bond between NATO and its newest members, an emphatic demonstration that the countries of Eastern Europe will never again be under the sway of a totalitarian force as they were under the former Soviet Union.

The missile defense system proposed is critical to the defense of NATO and the United States. At the Bucharest 2008 NATO Summit it was agreed that “ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies’ forces, territory and population…We therefore recognize the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European-based United States missile defense assets.” Even Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov understands this, noting on February 6, 2008 that Iran’s space rocket launch “adds to general suspicions of Iran regarding its potential desire to build nuclear weapons. Long range missiles are one of the components of such weapon. That causes concerns.”

Thus, it is hard to disagree with the conclusion of the Director of the Czech Republic’s Security Policy Department when she noted, “Russia knows full well that…10 interceptors won’t change the strategic balance… But for [the Russians], a U.S. presence in Central Europe is the final confirmation of their loss of their influence over this part of Europe.” In the larger context, the missile defense site, according to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, cements the further unification of Europe and NATO, “a clear signal…for the entire world, that the era when countries were divided by force into spheres of influence, or when the stronger used to subjugate the weaker, has come to an end once and for all.”

What is at stake here is very serious. When Senator John Kennedy assumed the presidency in January 1961, he had campaigned on a platform of restoring American military might unlike Senator Obama, who has talked of cutting tens of billions from the US defense budget, including missile defense and nuclear deterrent programs. Kennedy was faced immediately with the Bay of Pigs, where he vacillated with respect to helping US forces who had landed on the beaches of Cuba.

The Soviet leader Khrushchev saw this as weakness. At the subsequent summit in Vienna, he viewed Kennedy as a marshmallow, someone who could be pushed around. Not long after, the Berlin Wall went up and nuclear-tipped missiles were deployed in Cuba. Kennedy himself admitted he was unprepared for the summit in Vienna and that Khrushchev had indeed seen him as soft and weak. And that is why the Soviets pushed to seek advantage.

In his book At the Abyss, former Reagan administration official Thomas Reed explains that Khrushchev told the the KGB commander of Soviet rockets in Cuba to launch the missiles should they not be able to communicate with each other. The resolution of the Cuban missile crisis is now seen as a big victory for the Kennedy administration, but in fact the United States secretly removed its nuclear deterrent missiles from Turkey and agreed not to seek regime change in Havana. Cuba became a critical outpost in the communist war against the West, supporting terrorism and revolution from El Salvador to Grenada to Angola.

While the Iranians could be wrong about Senator Obama, there is the impression that life would be easier for the Mullahs with him in the White House rather than Senator McCain, who has forcefully underscored his commitment to see that no nuclear weapons are deployed by Tehran. Perhaps as important, should Obama abandon Iraq because of his increasingly obvious belief that “winning” in Iraq is not necessary, Iran may indeed be emboldened to put increased military pressure on Iraq, thinking that would compel a precipitous American withdrawal from not just Iraq but also the greater Middle East.

That impression, whether false or not, could be the basis for reckless action that can get lots of people killed. Former President Kennedy played politics with America’s security and nearly brought us Armageddon. It is something we ought to think about before we get overwhelmed by the rock star tour coverage of Senator Obama’s foreign travels, a trip that served simply to highlight his utter lack of foreign policy competence.  It has become fashionable on the substance of foreign policy to believe that what you don’t know, you can learn.  Henry Kissinger warned otherwise: “You can’t learn on the job. You can use up your substance, but it is very hard to acquire it.”

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