Barak Obama has had his first foreign policy lesson, just a week after his election. In the wake of his victory over John McCain, Mr. Obama moved quickly into presidential mode - although he still won't be president for over two months. An innocuous telephone conversation with Polish President Lech Kaczynski blossomed into an international disagreement when the Polish leader claimed, post-call, that Mr. Obama had promised to continue installing a missile-defense system in Poland. The Obama transition office denied that any such assurances had been given. (The Bush White House declined to comment on the dispute.)
During the campaign, Mr. Obama's opponents repeatedly warned of Mr. Obama's inexperience in foreign affairs. Mr. Obama brushed such concerns aside with airy assurances that amounted to: "Trust us. How hard can this be? All that's needed is a willingness to talk..." He promised aggressive diplomacy with both friends and (apparent) foes. Everyone would sit down at the table of sweet reason and brotherhood.The Mainstream Media agreed that all would surely be well with good old Joe Biden - the Senate's reigning foreign policy pooh-bah - at Mr. Obama's side. Now the perspicacity of those warnings has been vindicated. Right out of the box, before even taking office, Mr. Obama has stepped into deep doo-doo.
Mr. Obama's trouble is entirely of his own making. In the first place, what is he doing talking to foreign leaders, either on the phone or in person? I read a report saying he had already spoken with fifteen foreign heads of state. This is presumptuous and completely out of line. Mr. Bush has bent over backward to be cordial and statesman-like with Mr. Obama, but the Bush White House should have asked Mr. Obama to desist from further contacts with heads of state until he is actually in office - i.e., after January 20. It's important that proper protocol be observed to avoid the kind of confusion that has now occurred.
Secondly, Mr. Obama needs to review (and memorize) the comment of 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they have only permanent interests." Our naïve president-elect thought he was just palavering, in general terms, with a friendly head of state. The conversation was intended to enhance his image as a calm, deliberate new American leader. Perhaps he didn't comprehend how nervous Poland is about Vladimir Putin and the ambitions of a resurgent Russia. Soon after the call, Mr. Kaczynski eagerly seized upon Mr. Obama's "promise" to deploy missile-defense in Poland when the technology becomes "workable".
In Mr. Obama's evasive wording we can see the origin of the misunderstanding that grew out of the telephone exchange. It tells volumes about the divide between the experienced Polish president and our green-as-a-bean president-elect. Mr. Kaczynski - being fully informed about military technology - knows that missile-defense technology is already workable. No doubt he assumed that Mr. Obama knew it too.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has probably bought the liberal line that such technology is infeasible - or else, that feasibility lies far in the future. That hoary liberal shibboleth is false, however. Legions of military people and scientists know that missile-intercept technology is functional and reliable, within acceptable tolerances for deployment. A significant operational test of the Patriot short-range missile defense system occurred during the 1991 Gulf War, when dozens of Iraqi Scud missiles were shot down before they could reach Israeli territory, where they were aimed.
In September 2007, an important space-intercept test succeeded when an interceptor missile, launched from the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, destroyed an ICBM, originating from Kodiac, Alaska. The test demonstrated the target-acquisition, tracking and evaluation capabilities of the missile defense system, as well as the performance of the interceptor's rocket motor and its kinetic kill capability. Thus, while Mr. Obama thought he was being cleverly evasive in his statements about "workable technology", he really created a full-blown controversy with those words.
Liberals frequently discount reports like those of the interceptor-test (above) by claiming that they are simply "government lies". This cynical rejection of information that one does not wish to hear will hurt Democrats' ability to govern, now that they finally have the reins of power. This instance of Mr. Obama's poor understanding of complex technical or political issues is only the first of many that will flow from his liberal lineage. I didn't expect to see evidence of it show up so soon, but here it is.
Finally, the "Polish missile-defense controversy" shows that location and timing are always key factors in international matters. Although Poland is just a "little country" (as Mr. Obama called Iran), the controversy is still significant because of where Poland is. Surrounded by Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany and Czechoslovakia, Poland is sensitive to the merest twitch from former components and allies of the now-defunct USSR. Russia, the big dog on that block, has been making ominous statements - closely resembling threats - toward both Poland and the United States to indicate its displeasure over a missile defense system on Polish soil. Now, with a new, untested American president coming to office, Russia senses an opportune time to crowd both the USA and the Poles on missile defense. These are still dangerous times, and Mr. Putin is a dangerous character. We need to be wary of him.
Whether we should deploy a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe is not the issue here. The issue is having a president who might not understand that a careless word can cause his country big problems, as has happened here. This lesson in Foreign Policy 101 might be a costly one.
I once heard a cab-driver say that foreign policy was like plumbing: nothing is simple. Mr. Obama - no plumber he - is about to learn how true that statement is. The American people said they wanted him. Now they've got him. His first job has produced leaky pipes. Let's hope he learns on the job - quickly.