Was White House duped by Kremlin on timing of missile decision? | Digital Journal Op-Ed

By Ted Lipien

Published October 2, 2009 by Digital Journal

Speculations grow that Russian diplomats, working on instructions from propaganda experts, tricked White House and State Department officials to get President Obama to make his missile shield announcement on September 17, a bad day for Poland.

Opinia.US, a bilingual Polish-English news website providing analysis of US-Polish relations, reports that bloggers and Russian experts in the US have been trying to find out whether the Obama White House coordinated with the Kremlin the timing of the missile shield decision that deeply offended people in Poland and produced biting commentaries in the US. September 17, when President Obama announced his decision, was the day of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the beginning of WWII.

Many US and international commentators condemned and ridiculed the timing of the announcement and the decision itself as undermining US credibility and security of US allies, even if some of them agreed that on purely technical merits it may have been a right move. A number of influential Republican members of Congress, including Senator Richard Lugar, R-IN, and Senator George Voinovich, R-OH, were also critical of the way President Obama is treating US allies in East-Central Europe.

A State Department official, who was asked to explain how such a public diplomacy disaster could have happened, refused to comment and suggested that these questions should be directed to the White House. The National Security Council, NSC, is believed to have been responsible for coordinating the evaluation of the anti-missile system.

In a highly unusual move for a diplomatic mission abroad, the US Embassy in Warsaw acknowledged on its official website that that Poles believe that the “insensitive timing” — as the Embassy put it — of the White House announcement shows that Obama does not understand Poland.” 

President Barack Obama bids farewell to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev backstage after the two spoke at the Parallel Business Summit at the Manezh Exhibition Hall in Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

One of the experts, who suspect that the US State Department and the White House may have been duped by Russian propaganda experts, is Dr. John Brown, a former US diplomat who had served in Warsaw and Moscow. In an article titled, The September 17 missile announcement: A speculation regarding this public-diplomacy disaster, Dr. Brown offered his theory that “the cynical but clever Putin oligarchy proposed the date of the announcement, knowing full well that the Americans, ignorant of history (or not caring about it, true to their national character) would have no objections, timed as it was to occur before Obama’s speech at the UN. The Putin-Russians, no fools and familiar with the Polish fear (and resentment) of being abandoned by the West, also realized full well that the date of the announcement would produce an anti-American backlash among the Poles, even among those who had opposed the shield in the first place, because it would be seen by them as yet another great power deal to diminish the influence of their country and leave it defenseless.”

Dr. Brown has not been a supporter of the Bush missile defense plan, and considers it both foolish and unnecessarily provocative toward Russia, but he has been highly critical of the way the Obama Administration handled the whole issue vis-a-vis Poland. During his diplomatic career of more than 20 years, he had served mostly in Eastern and Central Europe. He resigned from the US Foreign Service in protest against President Bush’s war in Iraq. Dr. Brown is currently affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington, where he lectures on public diplomacy.

Opinia.US reports that several factors suggest that the White House was indeed duped by Russian propaganda experts as part of a carefully planned public relations scheme. Prior to the September 17th anniversary, the Kremlin controlled media helped to raise enormous anger and fear among the Poles by publishing a number of news items and commentaries defending Stalin’s pact with Hitler that let to the German-Soviet partition of Poland. This was followed by Prime Minister Putin’s statement in Gdansk in connection with the earlier anniversary on September 1 of the Nazi attack on Poland, in which he appeared to condemn the Hitler-Stalin Pact while still defending Stalin and his policies.

Despite its ambiguous nature, Putin’s statement made him look good to some Polish and many international media outlets, while President Obama was criticized for not attending the Gdansk ceremony and not even bothering to send a high level US official in his place. It seems highly plausible that at about the same time Russian diplomats suggested to the White House or the State Department that they were planning to make an immediate announcement about canceling their plans to have Russian missiles placed in the Kaliningrad district near the border of Poland if President President Obama would make his announcement about the US missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic on September 17. They may have also suggested that President Obama’s announcement of his decision just before his speech to the UN General Assembly would be seen by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin as a highly positive gesture and might generate future Russian concessions to Washington on dealing with Iran.

The official position of the State Department on the timing of the missile shield announcement, which was given to Dr. Brown in a phone conversation, is that “State Department sources could not explain the choice of that date.” Opinia.US has been trying to get the White House to respond. The White House press office has referred them to the National Security Council (NSC) and their press office. They have asked them a number of questions and were promised a response, but it did not come before their publishing deadline.

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