It's one thing to waste $10 billion a year quixotically developing a missile-defense system; President Bush clearly announced from the get-go that he was determined to do that, and Congress has been complicit in his quest.
But to spark a diplomatic crisis with Russia and the European Union while doing so—that takes bungling of an unusually intense quality.
On the verge of signing a deal to place 10 anti-missile missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, the Bush administration is getting hammered on all sides. The European Union is furious that Bush is circumventing NATO and dividing the continent. Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, is calling the plan "a serious destabilizing factor which could have significant impact on regional and global security."
In response, the White House is pledging to discuss the terms with NATO and rushing to offer the Russians rewards if they drop their opposition.
"We were a little late to the game," the New York Times quotes a senior administration official. "We should have been out there making these arguments, making the case more forcefully before people began framing the debate for us."
This is like a major-league manager saying, "We were a little late in putting a first baseman on the field."
Yes, the Bush team has a lot of problems on its plate. But Rule No. 1 in the game of American foreign policy is: Always keep an eye on Russia. This is especially true in handling anything to do with Eastern Europe or nuclear attacks—and doubly so when it involves Eastern Europe and nuclear attacks.
It's a complicated world out there, full of newly emerging dangers; the formula for dealing with them is still a work in progress. But when it comes to dealing with Russia—much less Europe—the rulebook has been around for decades, its pages well-thumbed and dog-eared, the margins richly annotated; it's the stuff of Diplomacy 101.
Even Bush was pretty good at this game at the outset of his presidency. When he entered office in January 2001, his top priority was to build a missile-defense system. Doing so would involve withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the centerpiece of U.S.-Russian arms-control accords dating back 30 years. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to renounce the treaty from the beginning. But then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Bush to engage with the Russians and to calm their fears before taking such a dramatic step. So, Bush visited Putin in June. Powell initiated negotiations for what became the Moscow Treaty, which sharply reduced both sides' offensive nuclear arms. By the time Bush gave formal notice that he was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, on Dec. 13, Putin took the news with a shrug. He'd been persuaded that the move was not part of a renewed buildup against Russia. And there wasn't much he could do about it, anyway; his army had crumbled, his economy was a wreck.