Autumn in Washington is often cruel. The heat and the humidity have lifted, and Congress returns more or less refreshed from summer vacation, but the pressure cooker continues to cook politics. Conversations about health care legislation and the economy continue to get top billing on the Hill and elsewhere, but Barack Obama is playing football with foreign policy. It's the season of the gridiron, after all.
The president threw a long pass over the heads of the lads from the Czech Republic and Poland, and Vladimir Putin, Moscow's very defensive back, intercepted easily. He naturally looks forward to more such floaters. "I do anticipate that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others."
The president's announcement that the United States would not deploy long-range missile defenses in Eastern Europe after all was astonishing because George W. Bush had negotiated so patiently with the Czechs and Poles, who took considerable risks in cooperating with Washington. The astonishment and anger in the West was not necessarily duplicated in Eastern Europe, accustomed as the Europeans in the East are to a role as pawns. Saving face is not necessarily a skill practiced only in the Orient.
Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, insists he was never persuaded of the value of the long-range shield, anyway. "I do not think it necessary to demonize it," he told The Washington Times. He feels more fear of the Brussels bureaucrats of the European Union than of aggressive Russians without communism.
"Of course," Aleksander Kwasniewski, the president of Poland, tells the German newsmagazine der Spiegel, "there are a lot of disappointed people. But I would warn them not to overdramatize this decision from Washington. In terms of security, the Americans will come with a different defense system, one that is more flexible and smarter."
Perhaps. The Poles, Czechs and everyone else must hope that Obama got something from Russia in return. For now, the president looks more chump than champ. The president's men made him look like a rube just off the turnip truck for how he gave the word to the Polish and Czech presidents, treating them to a midnight telephone call the night before he announced his decision. It looked like an afterthought, and probably felt that way, too.
The episode over missiles inevitably recalls another missile episode, frightening not embarrassing, in the autumn of 1962. That one was a study in diplomacy, combining artful negotiations with style, smarts and common sense, a brilliant ploy of brinksmanship credited with sparing the world a catastrophe. That Washington drama that brought into play the psychology of the players and a secret deal that would be revealed only years later was part of a stunning week that would be remembered as the nadir of the Cold War and the zenith of the Kennedy era. It was the greatest triumph of John F. Kennedy.
Robert W. Merry describes the drama and the peculiar way that crises often played out in an earlier time in Washington in his book, "Taking on the World," a portrait of the influential newspaper columnists Joe and Stewart Alsop.
The night after the he learned that Nikita Khrushchev, "that geopolitical chess master, was busy assembling in Cuba a lethal load of surface to surface missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the cities of America," the president and the first lady were guests at a dinner given by Joe and Susan Mary Alsop, "the grand couple of Georgetown."
The guest of honor was Charles 'Chip' Bolen, who had served at the American embassy in Moscow before and during World War II and who was to leave shortly for Paris as the American ambassador. Joe was miffed when the president spent so much time in the garden talking to Bolen about what he thought the Soviet leader would do, delaying the start of dinner and cooling the overcooked roast.
For six days at the White House, the president's men weighed options, from air strikes to knock out the missiles to a naval blockade to keep Soviet ships from proceeding to Havana harbor. The blockade worked. Khrushchev blinked first, and the crisis was over. Only later it was revealed that Bobby Kennedy had pledged to the Soviet ambassador in Washington that the American missile bases in Turkey would be dismantled. So much for the lost face.
Some of us remember John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama is no John F. Kennedy. Neither is Vladimir Putin a Khrushchev, nor the Czech Republic and Poland a Cuba. But maybe the president got a secret sweetener from Russia this time in return for pulling back the American missile defense. We can always hope.