The United States should “reconsider putting in our missile defense system back into the Czech Republic and Poland, as we once planned. As you recall, we pulled that out as a gift to Russia.”

— Former governor Mitt Romney, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” March 23, 2014

Not to pick on Romney, but this is a common theme among Republican critics of President Obama’s handling of the tensions with Russia over Ukraine. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have made similar comments. Cheney said Obama had canceled the system to “appease Putin,” and McCain asserted he did it to “placate Putin.”

Let’s look back at this supposed gift.

The Facts

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. Administration officials at the time stressed repeatedly that the plan had nothing to do with Russia — and everything to do with Iran.

Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008 said that Russia’s rhetoric about the system was “pathetic.” As she put it, “I frankly think that anybody who can do the math would know that 10 interceptors in Poland is not going to do anything to a Russian deterrent that has thousands of warheads.”

Enter President Obama, who announced in September 2009 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.

The plan, a shield based on the Navy’s Aegis system, was designed to begin with Navy ships with SM-3 interceptors in the eastern Mediterranean and then progress to land-based SM-3s in Eastern Europe.

Obama made the announcement in the midst of a high-profile effort to “reset” relations with Russia, which included negotiations on an arms-reduction treaty. White House officials even described the new system as “less threatening” to Russia. Administration officials also failed to give a heads-up to the Poles and the Czechs, making it appear like a diplomatic snub at their expense.

Still, one key official described the shift as more effective, less costly and timelier than the Bush plan — then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. He also happened to be the guy who recommended the original plan to Bush. He defended the change at the time in an opinion article in the New York Times, noting that the Bush plan would not have been deployed until at least 2017. He then expanded on his defense of the shift in his recent memoir, “Duty.”

Gates, in his book, noted that while the Obama administration had stumbled in failing to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the shift, looking “like a bunch of bumbling fools,” 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.

The first three phases of Obama’s plan are proceeding on schedule. The plan also had a fourth European phase, which would have been aimed at protecting North America from Iranian intercontinental missiles using an interceptor called the SM-3 Block IIB that exists only on paper. But the fourth phase was canceled in 2013. So the nascent ICBM threat still needs to be addressed, most likely with interceptors on the East Coast. Still, in theory the original Bush plan for ground-based interceptor missiles in Eastern Europe could be revived, as Romney proposes.

Just remember: It’s not supposed to be about Russia.

Aides to Romney did not respond to queries.

The Pinocchio Test

On the evidence, Romney’s claim that Obama wanted to give Russia “a gift” by canceling the Bush program is specious. Administration officials may have hoped that the decision, which appears largely based on military considerations, paid some diplomatic dividends. But Gates, who is a Republican, makes a strong case that this was a secondary consideration. In any case, the Russians still were not happy.

Reviving the Bush plan is not out of the question, though an East Coast interceptor system has gained congressional support. But ironically, by making this concept about Russia, Republicans risk reducing enthusiasm for the idea in eastern Europe, where officials are wary of provoking Moscow.

This GOP talking point earns Two Pinocchios. Obama’s move was not a gift to Russia; it wasn’t even a gift horse.

Two Pinocchios

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