Last month, as part of his plans to "push the reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations, the new president sent a secret letter to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. The missive reportedly contained a simple offer: America would move to scrap Bush administration-era plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe in return for the Kremlin's help in dealing with Iran's persistent nuclear ambitions.
Russia's response was rapid -- and far from enthusiastic. "If we are talking about some sort of trade or exchange, then I can say that the question cannot be put that way -- it's not productive," Medvedev told reporters in Moscow when news of the clandestine communiqué broke in the Western media.
The damage, however, has already been done. After all, the Bush administration's plans for a "third site" in Europe -- entailing the deployment of interceptors in Poland and an early warning radar in the Czech Republic as a compliment to anti-missile capabilities already deployed in Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California -- were never anything but controversial.
After more than two years of intensive diplomacy, Washington and Warsaw appeared on the cusp of a firm deal last summer, until European uncertainty over the outcome of the U.S. presidential election put plans for the deployment in stasis. Even then, Poland's tentative participation had required an American commitment to upgrading the country's aging air defenses against potential threats from the east (read Russia).
Securing Prague's participation, however, was always far more problematic. The issue was largely local; when surveyed by the Czech think tank CVVM in July 2007, nearly two-thirds of all Czech citizens opposed the idea of basing a missile defense radar on their territory. Nevertheless, the government of Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek has made a valiant effort to salvage the project. Thanks in large measure to its persistence, the Czech Republic's role in U.S. missile defense plans is still on the table, with a formal decision on the issue postponed until the next session of the country's parliament convenes later this spring. Today, however, the outcome of that vote is all but decided, thanks to the Obama administration's apparent willingness to use missile defense as a bargaining chip in its relations with Russia.
As goes the Czech Republic, so will the "third site." Pentagon planners might still seek an alternate location for the system's radar elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In the past, Lithuania expressed at least tentative interest in signing on to the initiative if one of Washington's current regional missile defense partners bows out. But that was when the Bush administration was still in office, and America appeared irrevocably committed to the deployment of such a capability.
Today, the perception abroad is that the Obama administration is anything but. Which, in turn, is liable to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as potential partners around the world rethink participation in missile defense projects in anticipation of a decline in U.S. support for them. This may be just fine by the White House, which gives every indication of adopting a "test forever, deploy never" mentality when it comes to the defense of the United States and its allies against the threat of ballistic missile attack.
But the likely demise of the European leg of America's nascent missile defense architecture also puts Washington in a quandary of its own making -- reinforcing growing doubts among allies abroad that America is committed to their defense, and leaving itself precious little leverage by which to wrangle the Kremlin's good behavior on Iran.
In Vegas, showing your cards in such a fashion might be forgiven as a rookie mistake. In the unforgiving world of international politics, however, it is not likely to be.