July 12, 2008 | Commentary on International Organizations, Missile Defense

The Real World: Between Iran and Poland

The recent Iranian missile tests demonstrate the need to deploy a missile defense capable of mid-flight interception of Iranian warheads, which in a few years may be able to reach Europe and the United States.

The United States has been working on developing and deploying such a system for years. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement in Prague, the Czech Republic, to locate radar, which is the key to such a defense. Washington was also planning to deploy the first battery of 10 missile defense rockets in Poland, but the government in Warsaw is balking.

Poland and the United States face dire implications for their bilateral relations as the missile deal collapses due to diverging agendas on both sides of the Atlantic. Now only luck - and outstanding diplomatic talent in Warsaw and Washington - can save the deal, and the relationship.

It didn't have to be this way. During the Second Bush administration the United States wanted to cement a key security relationship in Europe by deploying the global missile defense, while Poland wanted to become the preferred NATO partner for Washington. Warsaw needs to modernize its military and was ready to become a key location of U.S./NATO deployment vis-à-vis Poland's traditional adversary, Russia.

Under the Kaczynski brothers' conservative and Euro-skeptic government, it could have happened. Today, however, the diverging foreign policy agendas in the United States and Poland make a meeting of the minds much more difficult.

The tandem of Bush and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is at the end of its term in office, usually a bad time for foreign policy breakthroughs. In Bucharest, America's European allies handed Bush a bitter disappointment when they opposed NATO Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia. The much-desired Middle East peace deal between Israel and Abu Mazen's Palestinian Authority is more elusive than ever. Pakistan is an increasingly prickly ally. Now, Warsaw has given Bush another diplomatic black-and-blue.

While many believe that the missile deployment failed due to Poland requesting a high price, the reality is different. Prime Minister Donald Tusk is right: this is not about money - not even about the Patriots and the THAAD anti-aircraft missiles that the Polish government requested - for free.

Threats from Russia to aim nuclear weapons at Poland, and Moscow's trade sanctions against Poland certainly have played a role in delaying the decision to deploy. Yet, more importantly, the current Polish leadership has decided that the relations with Europe are more vital than with the fading Bush administration.

The European Union, which looks askance at U.S. power, including the global missile defense, pays billions of Euros to Poland every year in economic aid. Tusk, after the blow-ups of the Kaczynski era, is mending ties with Berlin and Paris, which oppose the missile plan. Some personal career aspirations of the Polish leaders may also have played a role in the Tusk government's adamant position toward the deal, high level sources in Warsaw say.

What will happen now? The Bush administration may sweeten the pill, offering at least some of the hardware the Tusk government asked for. It cannot, however, provide billions of dollars in military aid, a la Pakistan and Egypt, as Foreign Minister Bogdan Klich suggested.

First, it is demeaning for Poland to be compared with Pakistan and Egypt, where per capita income is among the lowest on the planet and illiteracy among the highest. Poland would want to compete with Italy, if not Great Britain, as a key European ally of the United States.

Second, both Egypt and Pakistan are anchor countries in the most unstable areas in the world: The Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Pakistan is fighting an anti-al-Qaida war on its territory and is a staging ground for the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan.

Third, the United States is broke and overextended worldwide. The external national debt is $7 trillion; the internal debt, including mortgage and the private sector credit, is a crushing $35 trillion - this is almost 300 percent of the GDP. The United States may be happy to sell Poland modern weapons systems and provide training, but it won't pay for them.

Russian threats may have impressed Warsaw, but if Poland remains intransigent, Lithuania, Croatia, Georgia, or even Romania and Bulgaria may be encouraged to allow the missile system deployment. And under certain circumstances, a military-dominated government in Ankara may consider allowing a U.S. missile system deployment against Iran.

The sand in the clock is running out. Nevertheless, a compromise may still be worked out in the remaining few months of the Bush administration - if Warsaw is serious about staging the missile system on Polish soil - and if it wants American defense know-how.

The outcome of this deal could also depend on the U.S. election results in November. If Barack Obama wins, the system may be effectively dead. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Obama's foreign policy mentor and Jimmy Carter's former national security advisor, has said that the proposed missile defense system is unworkable, aimed at a non-existent threat (Iran), rejected by the Europeans.

A John McCain victory, on the other hand, would be likely to keep global missile defense alive and kicking, and his administration could be knocking on Warsaw's door come 2009.

As the champagne corks pop in Moscow, and grateful prayers are said in Tehran, Poland and the United States are parting their geostrategic ways. This is a momentous event and should not be lightly dismissed.

While it is true that countries have no permanent friends, only permanent interests, at times it seemed that the United States and Poland were a happy exception to this rule. Yet, Warsaw needs to remember that geography remains permanent, and 500 years of Polish-Russian relations are not going to disappear overnight. It will always need Washington's support.

Many in Poland are quietly celebrating the newly found Polish assertiveness, while those in Washington who remember Solidarity and the Cold War wonder if the seemingly true Polish friendship can be preserved.

And there is nothing to bolster friendship like unity in the face of adversity, this time, emanating from Tehran.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of, "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis."

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Middle East Times