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Friday, November 7, 2008

OBAMA'S FIRST BIG TEST? BALTIC MISSILE CRISIS!

In his first State of the State address on November 5, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that the Kremlin would soon deploy short-range Iskander missiles right next to the Polish border, in order “to neutralize if necessary the antiballistic missile system in Europe.” On its face, the provocative move was a response to this August’s U.S./Polish missile deal, which the Kremlin has vocally opposed. But the timing of Medvedev’s announcement was transparently deliberate. It was a Russian-made test of mettle directed at America’s new president elect, Barack Obama.

Obama’s supporters were still celebrating his victory when Medvedev delivered a message designed not to congratulate the new president, but to put him on notice. Describing the speech as “belligerent,” The Economist reported that the date of the televised address “had changed twice before the Kremlin settled for November 5th. This timing was meant to show that Russia’s agenda is unaffected by such trivia as America’s presidential election. But it also smacked of rival attention-seeking: even as the world listened to Barack Obama’s victory speech, Medvedev was laying out a Russian version of democracy.”

In a notable breach of the usual niceties and protocols, Medvedev didn’t even acknowledge Barack Obama’s election win. Instead, he blamed the U.S. for “dragging the rest of the world down with it” during the recent economic crisis, and for supposedly “encouraging Georgia’s barbaric aggression,” a reference to the Russian war over South Ossetia this summer. “The August crisis only accelerated the arrival of the crucial moment of truth. We proved… that we are strong enough to defend our citizens and that we can indeed defend our national interests,” Medvedev said, adding ominously, “we are being tested to the limit.” Medvedev said that the era of American dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union was over. “The world cannot be ruled from one capital,” he warned. “Those who do not want to understand this will only create new problems for themselves and others.”

Both the timing and the content of Medvedev’s address were “particularly odd,” said military analyst Alexander Golts, who noted this is the first time since the Cold War that Russia has raised the specter of military threat to the West. “Even Soviet hawks used to wait for six months after an American election to make big statements of military strategy,” Golts remarked.

David Satter of the Hudson Institute told FrontPage that Medvedev’s remarks were “essentially posturing, but posturing that is intended to push the new administration into abandoning” missile defense projects in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Satter explained that the Kremlin needs to “exploit the notion of a hostile West,” for domestic consumption, “the better to consolidate its own hold on power.”

Even non-expert observers couldn’t help but think back to some cryptic statements made by Obama’s vice presidential running mate, Senator Joe Biden, in the final weeks of the election campaign. In a speech to key donors, Biden warned that if elected, Barack Obama would face a serious “test” early in his first term. “Mark my words,” Biden said. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said: Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”

Obama’s supporters enjoy comparing him to JFK, without quite realizing that their slain hero experienced many embarrassing, costly failures. Biden is not so historically illiterate; in that candid statement to Obama donors, he was harkening back to President Kennedy’s fateful first meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev just a few months after taking office in 1961. The older, cagier Khrushchev took the measure of the new president and found him wanting. Kennedy himself admitted that during that uncongenial first encounter, Khrushchev “beat the hell out of me.” As for the Soviet Premier, he later recalled “feeling sorry” for his youthful American counterpart – but not so sorry that he would cut Kennedy any slack. Within weeks of that meeting, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall. Within months, they’d installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at the United States. The result was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war for thirteen days in October 1962.

When considering the comparison between Kennedy and Obama, it is important to note that unlike Obama, Kennedy was a decorated Navy veteran who’d seen combat in a shooting war. Kennedy had also served far longer as a U.S. Senator, and boasted a family background of high-level diplomacy. None of that adequately prepared him to deal with a ruthless Russian leader.

Doubts about Obama’s views on military affairs first arose during the campaign. For instance, his wavering response to the Russian invasion of Georgia left some voters doubting Obama’s leadership in times of crisis. In an August meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, he vowed to uphold the new missile defense treaty. However, he expressed doubts about missile defense research during the primaries (claiming he’d support it if “it works and if it can be financially feasible,” according to one adviser) and was then accused of “flip flopping” on the issue. In one speech, he vowed, “I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space. I will slow our development of future combat systems.”

In the same speech, Obama declared, “I will negotiate with Russia to take our ICBMs off hair-trigger alert, and to achieve deep cuts in our nuclear arsenals.” Of course, any such negotiations will have to wait until after his inauguration on January 20. In the meantime, the White House issued a statement on November 6, declaring their eagerness to sit down with Russia for a “robust dialogue” in “the next couple of weeks.”

Besides setting new limits on the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, the White House hopes to assuage Russian objections to the new European anti-missile system. Yet with President Bush now reduced to “lame duck” status, the Russians may well stall for time until they can meet with the next occupant of the Oval Office.

When that inevitable meeting occurs, says David Satter, Obama must avoid showing weakness at all costs. Agreeing to delay or even to cancel the Eastern European missile defense system would be interpreted by the Russians as a sign that “pressure on the U.S. works, even when it is a matter of American defense interests.” The Kremlin would make “new and more outrageous demands in the future."

In other words, Medvedev’s address may well be recorded by historians as Obama’s first crisis, the one his running mate warned Americans would come. How a President Obama responds when the time comes will determine whether more will follow.

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