“At the mere request from Putin, President Obama withdrew the plans for a missile defense program based in Poland and the Czech Republic. He’s demonstrated repeatedly, I think, that he, in fact, can be pushed around, if you will, by the Putins…. What we did at the time [during the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict] was, I think, a more robust response. We flew in a brigade of Georgian soldiers that had been involved supporting our efforts in Iraq, flew them back into Georgia. We tried to provide some support there, as well as sent U.S. ships into the Black Sea and provided various kinds of supplies.”
– Former vice president Richard B. Cheney, interview on Fox News Sunday, May 18, 2014
This is a talking point that won’t die, even in the face of significant contrary information. Usually, Republicans describe the dropping of the Bush plan for missile defense as a “gift,” but on Sunday Cheney said it took place after a “mere request” from Russian President Vladimir Putin. He then unfavorably contrasted President Obama’s handling of the crisis over Crimea with Bush’s handling of a similar showdown over Georgia in 2008.
Time for a refresher course!
Toward the end of his presidency, George W. Bush, concerned about a possible threat to Europe and the United States from Iranian missiles, proposed to install 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The Russians certainly were not happy about it, even though U.S. officials insisted the system was aimed at Iran.
In September 2009, Obama announced that he was scrapping the Bush plan and introducing an alternative, what he called a “European phased adaptive approach.” The four-part plan would initially focus on threats posed by Iranian short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, and then eventually would include a fourth phase that would target as-yet undeveloped Iranian intercontinental missiles.
Although Obama made the announcement as he was actively trying to “reset” relations with Russia, the “request” to change the plan actually came from Bush’s — and Obama’s — defense secretary, Robert M. Gates. In fact, Gates had recommended the original plan to Bush but decided the new version would be more effective, less costly and timelier.
Indeed, in his memoir, “Duty,” published in January, Gates noted that the Bush plan was already running into trouble in both Prague and Warsaw and likely would have been rejected by parliaments in both countries. “The Polish and Czech governments were relieved,” he wrote.
“I sincerely believed the new program was better — more in accord with the political realities in Europe and more effective against the emerging Iranian threat,” Gates added. “While there certainly were some in the State Department and the White House who believed the third site in Europe was incompatible with the Russian ‘reset,’ we in Defense did not. Making the Russians happy wasn’t exactly on my to-do list.”
In fact, Gates says, the Russians quickly concluded that the Obama plan was even worse from their perspective, as it eventually might have capabilities that could be used against Russian intercontinental missiles.
“How ironic that U.S. critics of the new approach had portrayed it as a big concession to the Russians,” Gates added sardonically. “It would have been nice to hear a critic in Washington — just once in my career — say, Well I got that wrong.”
Now let’s look at the second part of Cheney’s comments — that the Bush response to the Russian incursion of Georgia was “more robust.” To some extent, this is difficult to judge because the situations are different.
In the Georgian-Russian conflict of 2008, there was a split between Europe and the United States on the cause of war. Many Europeans thought Georgia itself had provoked the Russian military response —an opinion confirmed by an E.U.-sponsored report in 2009 — whereas WikiLeaks cables showed that U.S. diplomats in 2008 relied all too often on the Georgian version of disputed events.
Now, there is broad consensus in Europe and the United States that Russia grabbed Crimea without significant provocation and that the new government in Ukraine generally has acted with restraint.
Still, let’s look in more detail at Cheney’s two pieces of evidence: The United States flew a brigade of Georgian soldiers from Iraq and the administration sent “U.S. ships into the Black Sea and provided various kinds of supplies.”
The war started on Aug. 7, 2008, and by Aug. 11 the airlift of nearly 2,000 troops from Iraq was nearly complete, according to the Pentagon, which emphasized it was not flying the soldiers to the war zone. On Aug. 12, a cease-fire was announced by Russia. “Did the U.S. airlift of the Georgian troops to Tbilisi change the tide of battle or Moscow’s political calculations? No. The Russian army handily drove them back,” wrote former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer in Politico.
As for the ships carrying “various kinds of supplies,” Cheney is referring to humanitarian supplies brought by U.S. ships in late August — many days after the cease-fire went into effect. The Coast Guard cutter Dallas, for instance, carried 34 tons of aid. The guided missile destroyer USS McFaul also carried humanitarian aid, entering the Black Sea on Aug. 22.
Meanwhile, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has acknowledged that “the United States and Europe could agree on only a few actions to isolate Russia politically.” By contrast — in part because Europeans do not blame Ukraine for the tensions — in the current situation the United States and European nations have agreed on several rounds of financial sanctions. Whether these sanctions will be effective remains to be seen.
Representatives for Cheney did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Given that former defense secretary Gates, who served with Cheney, sharply disputes the notion that Obama dropped the defense plan in response to Russian pressure — or a “mere request’ from Putin — it’s a bit amazing that Cheney is still trying to argue this point. Gates’s memoir is often tough on Obama, giving his account of this particular issue additional credibility.
Cheney’s claim that the Bush response to Georgia was “more robust” than Obama’s response to Ukraine is also highly questionable, given the modest evidence he cites.
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