Since the Republican National Convention, Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, have been rattling their rhetorical sabers at Moscow. In her first television interview, she noted that "perhaps" the United States would go to war with Russia over Georgia.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused Washington of orchestrating the conflict in South Ossetia as a strategy to boost McCain's chances of winning the presidency. The White House responded not only by correctly labeling Putin's claims as false and provocative but also by questioning his sanity.
But calling the comments both "absurd" and "not rational" continues a dangerous pattern of dismissive speech toward Russia, a Cold War-style tactic increasingly used since the resumption of fighting in the Caucasus.
For example, after a year and a half of impasse, the United States and Poland recently signed a deal to place a U.S. missile defense base about 115 miles from Russia. A Defense Department spokesman asserted that he had "no indication" that Russia's invasion of Georgia influenced the negotiations between the United States and Poland. "But who knows?" he continued. "You can draw your own conclusions."
It appears that leaders in Warsaw have done just that. They believe the technologically unproven system will offer their country security assurances beyond those guaranteed by membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow also has made up its mind, rejecting assurances that the system is meant only to protect against a future Iranian threat and that it is not capable of targeting Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russian leaders argue that the radar and interceptors could be upgraded, eventually able to negate their nuclear deterrent. Independent American scientists like George Lewis, Theodore Postol and Philip Coyle point out that from a technical standpoint, this scenario is quite realistic.
Yet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly dismissed Russian concerns as unfounded, ludicrous and irrational. "It's just not even logically possible for it to be aimed at Russia," she said of the missile interceptors. According to Rice, comments indicating that Moscow might retaliate against Poland - which will acquire a battery of short-range Patriot missiles in addition to the 10 long-range interceptors - "border on the bizarre."
Like Putin's conspiratorial views on the war in South Ossetia, the ways Russia has gone about expressing its opposition to the plan are not constructive - to say the least. But "bizarre" is an adjective better used to describe the behavior being exhibited by some U.S. leaders.
For example, McCain has simultaneously advocated kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight and building good relations between Russia and the United States. And after months of diplomacy and declaration to the contrary, the administration has established an overt connection between their push for European ballistic missile defense and Russian behavior. This linkage only confirms Russian suspicions. Indeed, if Iran is truly the threat, Moscow has every reason to wonder why Washington has been so quick to reject offers of collaboration on missile defense and to take steps that imperil efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran.
Now with any possibility of cooperation with Russia on Iran deferred, it seems the United States stands to lose much more from missile defense than it might gain. The deal signed with Poland includes provisions that before the war in Georgia Washington had deemed unacceptable. The proposed system will do nothing for NATO security so long as it remains - like President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative - expensive to develop, opposed by many in Congress and technologically deficient. Most troubling, the deal obligates the United States to defend Poland more quickly than is required under NATO. This marginalizes the principle of collective security, which is enshrined in Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty.
In the past weeks, decision makers have dusted off an abundance of Cold War rhetoric, reflecting old memories and new fears. NSC-68, the 1951 government report that became the blueprint for U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union, depicted that country as hostile, fanatical and compulsive. The current U.S. practice of dismissing as irrational all Russian concerns over missile defense is redolent of this tradition.
Threatening a strike against Poland and accusing President Bush of schemes in Georgia put Russia undoubtedly in the wrong. But this does not make Russia crazy. Patent characterization of Moscow as "bizarre" or "illogical" bears resemblance to Cold War-era threat inflation, a tactic some of the authors of NSC-68 later admitted to employing in that document. Before the United States again treads down that path, its leaders must recall the consequences of such distortion - heightened instability, mutual antagonism and bloated defense budgets. Let's hope they will learn enough from these lessons to avoid repeating their mistakes.
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