As President Bush returns from Eastern Europe, he can reflect on the trip as one of the most successful of his presidency. He didn’t achieve everything on his agenda: NATO won’t offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine anytime soon. On the other hand, the president did secure some 2,000 additional troops for operations in Afghanistan. France has pledged 700 soldiers; another 500 will come from Georgia, 400 from Poland, and smaller numbers from other nations.
Bush’s most important achievement, however, may involve missile defense. Last Thursday, NATO endorsed U.S. plans to build a small missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. NATO’s leaders finally recognize that Iran poses a genuine ballistic-missile threat to Europe and North America and that missile defense is a viable countermeasure. Although the alliance hasn’t done nearly enough to prevent the ayatollahs from going nuclear, NATO’s embrace of Bush’s missile-defense policy represents clear-headed thinking about an emerging threat and an appropriate response. This is progress.
Nobody expected Bush to accomplish much when he met with outgoing Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend, and indeed he didn’t. The Kremlin remains opposed to the missile-defense plan. Yet Putin’s rhetoric was far more restrained than it has been on previous occasions. This may be the result of successful advance diplomacy: In March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Pentagon chief Robert Gates visited Moscow in an effort to abate Russian opposition. Their proposals weren’t made public, but they almost certainly included an offer to let Russia dispatch monitors to the missile-defense sites.
Russian leaders could be coming to the realization that their intimidation campaign against missile defense has failed, at least for the time being (they might think they will have better luck with a Democrat in the White House). The Bush administration never blinked in its commitment to the Czech and Polish sites. Political opposition in the host countries didn’t gain traction. Now NATO has offered its seal of approval. Congressional Democrats remain an obstacle and have attempted to slash funding for the project. John McCain would be wise to advocate missile defense often between now and November — it’s a happy union of smart policy and good politics.
This is part of Bush’s legacy that should be emphatically embraced. Early in his first term, Bush ignored the howls of doomsaying Democrats as he liberated the United States from the restrictions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. His administration moved forward with an aggressive schedule of testing new technologies. Within a few years, a handful of interceptors were deployed in Alaska and California. In February, those systems demonstrated their utility by demolishing a defective satellite as it prepared to re-enter the planet’s atmosphere. Now, in the waning months of his second term, Bush has won a major agreement on missile defense from America’s allies.
Let’s hope his successors have the wisdom to follow up on all his spadework.