Leaked State Department Cables Show Obama and Gates Naive on Russia

by Ted Lipien

Opinia.USOpinia.US Truckee, CA, November 29, 2010 — Leaked secret State Department cables may help to resolve the mystery as to why President Obama chose September 17, 2009 to make his announcement on canceling President Bush’s missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The announcement pleased the Kremlin, which had been pushing for the cancellation of the planned system for years. But why the Obama White House made the announcement on September 17, the anniversary of the Soviet military invasion of Poland in 1939 under the secret terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, is still not clear.

The timing of the announcement has been seen around the world as a public diplomacy disaster for America and was described with ridicule in U.S. and foreign media reports. Needless to say, not only the decision itself, but also the historical symbolism of the date when it was announced, greatly upset the Polish Government and Polish Americans. It turned out to be a major embarrassment for President Obama.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow cables released so far by Wikileaks and examined by Opinia.US still do not shed sufficient light on the timing of the announcement. Neither do the Wikileaks released cables originating from the State Department in Washington.

We do know, however, that a cable sent from the State Department to U.S. Embassies gave American ambassadors advanced warning of the September 17 announcement. Conceivably, one of the hundreds, if not thousands of U.S. diplomats and other State Department officials and officials of other U.S. Government agencies who had seen the cable could have warned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama that releasing this news on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland was not a particularly bright idea. Unless someone, perhaps a U.S. Presidential adviser, deliberately wanted to send a message to the Poles that they should rely less on U.S. support and should seek an accommodation with the Kremlin.

Another theory is that Russian intelligence media specialists deliberately planted the September 17 announcement idea with historically-clueless American diplomats who somehow got the White House to fall for this clever ruse designed to make the Poles feel more vulnerable, and therefore more likely to adopt a more pro-Moscow attitude.

We still do not know if anyone sounded a warning but we do know that President Obama made his announcement on September 17.

The talking points in the leaked secret cable signed by Mrs. Clinton (The cable was not written by her, but most outgoing State Department cables bear the signature of the Secretary of State.) were addressed to U.S. Embassies except for those in Warsaw and Prague. We have learned from the leaked cable that separate talking points on missile defense were prepared for Poland and the Czech Republic, but Wikileaks has not yet put them on their website, assuming it has them. Also, no cables from the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw have been released by Wikileaks so far.

What we do know is that the Obama Administration had not negotiated a priori any concessions from the Kremlin for making this important decision, which severely undermined the sense of security of Poland and other U.S. allies in the region. We also found out that government officials in France had warned a high ranking U.S. diplomat that the Russian leaders would pocket this unilateral gift from the Obama Administration without giving Washington anything in return.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robet Gates

It also emerged from the leaked cables that one of the strongest advocates for the concession on missile defense to the Kremlin was U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. We also learned that he badly wanted Russian help in moving U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan. (It would be interesting to find out which U.S. private military contractors would benefit from these transports through Russian airspace and territory and what are their links to current DOD officials.)

The ever-so down-to-earth and cynical French warned an American diplomat that the Russians might actually help Washington in this particular area because the Kremlin wants to see the U.S. bogged down in the Afghanistan quagmire. It was also clear that President Obama expected Moscow’s help in dealing with the nuclear issue in Iran in exchange for his unilateral concession on missile defense in Central Europe.

It is incredible but not surprising that ideologically-driven and inexperienced U.S. President failed to get a firm deal with the Kremlin on this point ahead of time. In any case, both French and even U.S. diplomats had warned, according to the leaked cables, that the current Russian leadership would have no interest in helping the U.S. in Iran, and in fact is very much interested in keeping the Iranian crisis simmering on indefinitely for a number of good reasons related to their perception of Russia’s national interest. One of them is the high price of oil, from which Russia (read: the state energy sector controlled by Mr. Putin and to a lesser extent Mr. Medvedev) benefits economically.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush Administration, emerges from the cables almost as naive about dealing with Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev as President Obama himself. In one of the cables from Paris, he is describes as informing the French Defense Minister, apparently with a straight face, that Mr. Putin had once told him that Iran represents the greatest threat for Russia. Apparently both Secretary Gates and President Obama bought this story from Mr. Putin, one of the most sophisticated ex-KGB disinformation experts Russia has ever produced. When it comes to diplomatic intrigue and safeguarding your own and your country’s interests, neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Gates are a match for Mr. Putin, and not even Mr. Medvedev.

Of course, Mr. Putin’s perception of Russia’s interests are not really what the Russian people would benefit from if they had full democratic freedoms and were allowed to develop normal, mutually beneficial relations with America and the rest of the free world.

The leaked cables also show that U.S. diplomats were too timid to challenge vigorously what they knew to be the President’s views, but at least some brave souls tried to point out, albeit weakly and indirectly, that Mr. Obama’s plans with regard to Russia were based on rather naive assumptions. Overall, the American diplomatic service again failed the President and the American people. But with President Obama in the White with his progressive view of international politics, similar to that of President Roosevelt in his dealings with Stalin, the U.S. diplomats probably did not have much of a chance to influence his thinking. That job is now left to the American voters. Let’s only hope it is not too late.

This op-ed may be republished with attribution to Opinia.US.

Ted LipienTed Lipien, a writer and journalist, was in charge of the Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity-led struggle for democracy. He is now president of Free Media Online (FreeMediaOnline.org), a California-based NGO which supports media freedom worldwide.


Opinia.US  US-Poland expert analysis