Shadow Government

While the United States Dithers, Poland Acts

The ongoing crisis launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin has left the Obama administration struggling to figure out how to respond to three scenarios: First, the possible invasion of Ukraine's eastern provinces by the Russian troops massed near the border; second, the contingency that Russia might simply continue to rattle its saber, threatening energy supplies and stirring up unrest among ethnic Russians in neighboring states; and third, the fait accompli of the annexation of Crimea. So far the president hasn't offered encouraging answers.

The first problem, further Russian incursions, would bring the crisis to a new level -- it would be impossible for the United States to contemplate the continued peril to NATO. A lukewarm response from the United States in such an instance would further undermine the failing confidence of Eastern European states like Poland and the Baltics, as well as the rest of our allies across the globe. The latter two problems -- how to address saber-rattling and the annexation -- are similarly fraught with peril, especially for the legacy and reputation of President Barack Obama and the Democrats. Robert Kagan has recently written about this problem, and Democrats are surely whispering about among themselves.

Putin has continued to the play the role of a risk-taking autocrat governed by realpolitik even if his Bismarckian skills are dubious. Obama, conversely, has played the role of a liberal internationalist, scratching his head as he conferences with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the "crazy" Russian leader who doesn't know how to behave in the 21st century. Hope springs eternal among the "soft power" advocates when Obama talks on the phone with Putin, but the read-outs from each side differ markedly: Obama thinks sanctions, scolding, and trash-talking are working, and therefore Putin is looking for a diplomatic resolution; Putin says he's telling the president of the dire state of ethnic Russians in the places Putin presumably wants to Finlandize. One imagines that Putin has decided he'll show the U.S. President exactly how a "regional power" can threaten the United States.

But if we take the phone calls, repeated Kerry-Lavrov meetings, and the facts on the ground -- the latter is what matters most in geopolitics -- it is plain to see that Putin is not looking for a diplomatic resolution. Rather, he is signaling that he has no intention of stopping until he is in control one way or another of his "near abroad." He is at the culmination of his 15 year strategy to set right what went wrong when the Soviet Union imploded. He is managing the victor's peace he managed to achieve after the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government while Obama is still trying to help him understand how to be a modern statesman.

Enter the heroic Poles, who are the only element of the West actually facing the realities that Putin has created. They are acting according to the dictates of hard power, and smart power, by building up their military and asking the United States to provide troops for Poland, calling for a European energy union, and inviting Obama to visit them in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their first free elections.

I doubt all this adds up to a covert strategy on the part of the Obama administration to "lead from behind" again, but rather another example of the Obama team's penchant for doing too little, too late, while weak states and would-be allies try to secure their freedom against the onslaught of aggressive powers. Only this time, the stakes are much higher -- this is not Libya. Eastern Europe -- NATO members included -- is not like the North African and Middle Eastern states where democracy and love for the United States is weak. The security of Eastern European democracies is at the very heart of our geopolitical strategy. If they are not safe, then the world the United States has created since World War II is in great peril.

Many analysts have put forth wise proposals for confronting Putin, calling on the United States to supply armaments and troop deployments to NATO countries, to implement more stringent sanctions on Russian leaders, and to immediately begin to attack Russia's near-monopoly on energy supplies to Europe, the only source of wealth Moscow has to work its will.

But among government leaders, it is the Poles who are acting. After all, they have been through this before. They have not been lulled into complacency by the siren song of the liberal internationalists who think Putin will be talked out of his decades-long mission to restore Russia's greatness and secure his rule. Maybe their calls will go unheeded -- certainly the Obama administration pulled the rug out from under them before when it refused to install missile defense systems on their territory. But we should applaud them for their realism and boldness, and hope the Obama administration will be spurred by their initiatives.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

After Failure in the Iran Nuclear Talks, What?

Think ahead about what can be gained while failing. It's a process of contingency planning that was practiced by some on the National Security Council staffs in the Reagan-Bush and Bush-Cheney White Houses, though it was also a staple of Cold War-era strategic thinking. An article in the Kennedy-Johnson era, "After Detection -- What?," became a model for policy planners at State and Defense for realistic steps if inspections indicated cheating -- failure of arms control compliance -- by Moscow on its nonproliferation commitments. And as the United States and its allies work to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, it's a practice that deserves some thought.

Assume failure to reach agreement in the six-party talks over Iran's nuclear program by the target date of July 20, 2014. Russian retaliation in the talks because of Western sanctions and inability to close the divide between American and Iranian views about the interim accord of January make prospects for a permanent accord slim.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Moscow would respond in kind to U.S. sanctions imposed on Russians over Ukraine and is considering other steps if Washington escalates tensions; indeed, he suggested that six-party talks over Iran's nuclear program are a potential venue for a response. As the March 2014 meeting closed in Vienna, one of Moscow's representatives said, Russia might have to use the negotiations "as an element in the game of raising the stakes." Although a U.S. Treasury official said Moscow had done nothing to suggest undermining pressure on Iran due to Ukraine, Tehran appeared to set a hardened posture.

Irrespective of whether Moscow is explicit in its retaliation, the chasm between Washington and Tehran since signing the January accord suggests reaching a permanent agreement by the third week of July is a bridge too far to cross so soon. Conflicting Iranian and American views of the agreement are an indication a success by July is unlikely.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that, "Not under any circumstances" would Tehran destroy any centrifuges for uranium enrichment. President Obama's view is that Tehran has to roll back some of its enrichment capabilities that, "hint at a desire to have breakout capacity" -- the time it would take to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for one bomb before inspectors could detect such progress.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) compared Iranian breakout time in August 2013 with the time it would take if Iran complied fully with the interim accord and allowed stringent inspections. In August, ISIS assessed Tehran might reach breakout status at about 1.0-1.6 months, as opposed to 1.9-2.2 months after the January agreement.

ISIS acknowledges the increase looks small but assumes International Atomic Energy Agency daily inspections at two enrichment sites, Natanz and Fordow, which would make the increase in breakout times "significant." But examining the same increase, United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) concludes that, "In reality, the [January] accord does little to push back Iran's breakout time." 

I concur: Why would Tehran rollback its enrichment capacity and accept daily inspections in view of lessening pressure because of the unfolding situation in Ukraine, Iranian statements to the contrary, and unwillingness of the White House to walk away from the talks without Iranian dismantlement of its enrichment capacity? Because failure is the most likely outcome, Washington should only go back to the negotiating table with a zero-enrichment policy.

Failure because of Iranian intransigence would give the Obama administration time and space to adopt tougher congressionally-supported financial and trade sanctions against Iran, which had been rejected by the administration. With the onus on Iran, the White House and Congress could align around the Senate letter of March, 18, signed by 83 of 100 Senators. The Congress has to concur with any permanent deal to end congressionally-mandated sanctions, so the split between the White House and the Hill does not augur well for prospects of a deal by July.

Regarding human rights, failure of the talks would provide an occasion for the Obama administration to open the door to the Iranian people not just to the regime. Washington negotiates with Beijing, yet reaches out to the Chinese people and to what the central government considers an "enemy" like the Dalai Lama. Washington should do no less with the Iranian people. And subsequent talks with Iran must include a human rights component.

If the top EU representative can meet with Iranian dissidents in Tehran, President Obama could meet with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, whose offices are within a block of the White House. Tehran is more threatened by its internal opposition than by external friends or enemies -- reaching out to Iranian dissidents is the way forward in anticipation of failure of the negotiations with Iran.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images