Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- The Biden prophecy has come to pass. Our wacky veep, momentarily inspired, had predicted last October that "it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama." Biden probably had in mind an eve-of-the-apocalypse drama like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, Obama's challenges have come in smaller bites. Some are deliberate threats to U.S. interests, others mere probes to ascertain whether the new president has any spine.

Preliminary X-rays are not very encouraging.

Consider the long list of brazen Russian provocations:

(a) Pressuring Kyrgyzstan to shut down the U.S. air base in Manas, an absolutely crucial NATO conduit into Afghanistan.

(b) Announcing the formation of a "rapid reaction force" with six former Soviet republics, a regional Russian-led strike force meant to reassert Russian hegemony in the Muslim belt north of Afghanistan.

(c) Planning to establish a Black Sea naval base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, conquered by Moscow last summer.

(d) Declaring Russia's intention to deploy offensive Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Poland and the Czech Republic go ahead with plans to station an American (anti-Iranian) missile defense system.

President Bush's response to the Kaliningrad deployment -- the threat was issued the day after Obama's election -- was firm. He refused to back down because giving in to Russian threats would leave Poles and Czechs exposed and show the world that, contrary to post-Cold War assumptions, the U.S. could not be trusted to protect Eastern Europe from Russian bullying.

The Obama response? "Biden Signals U.S. Is Open to Russia Missile Deal," as The New York Times headlined Biden's Feb. 7 Munich speech to a major international gathering. This followed strong messages from the Obama transition team even before the inauguration that Obama was not committed to the missile shield. And just to make sure everyone understood that the Bush policy no longer held, Biden in Munich said the U.S. wanted to "press the reset button" on NATO-Russian relations.

Not surprisingly, the Obama wobble elicited a favorable reaction from Russia. (There are conflicting reports that Russia might suspend the Kaliningrad blackmail deployment.) The Kremlin must have been equally impressed that the other provocations -- Abkhazia, Kyrgyzstan, the rapid reaction force -- elicited barely a peep from Washington.


Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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