I harbor great doubts about this.
In 2007, when George W. Bush announced the idea* for the sites in Eastern Europe, Russia was none too happy. Russia, you see, has always considered its former imperial/Soviet lands (read: all of Europe east of Germany and north of Turkey) to be its little fiefdom. It has a vested interest for a large sphere of influence (as do all nations). However, what matters is what that sphere means.
Russia, for centuries, has had a strange obsession with autocracy. They had it in the middle ages. They had it until the early 20th century, when the finally sluffed of the czars. Then they had it again, starting about five years after that, when they agve the Reds the reins of government. Again, autocracy lasted until the early 1990's, when it was replaced by oligarchy under Boris Yeltsin. Now, under our dear friend Vladimir Putin and his protege, Dmitri Medvedev, we have it turning back towards autocracy.
The thing about their obsession, though, is this: they like to export it. The United States likes to export republicanism (usually); that's been our mantra for two hundred years. The Russians like to have client states. In the latter half of the Bush presidency, Putin got the Russian Bear running again. The knocked pride of the country from having lost the Cold War and gone into economic turmoil during the 1990's was rekindled. Putin, sensing weakness in the U.S. (both for Bush politically and for the United States militarily with our stretched lines in Afghanistan and Iraq), 'turned up the heat', as it were. Russia began pressuring its former satellites (Ukraine, Poland, Georgia) more than it had been. We didn't like the little guys being pushed around. The missile defense shield, therefore, was a twofer: it made it possible to protect against potential Iranian missiles (long-distance, however; Obama is right that short-distance missiles are better stopped from carrier-based launchers) and it said to Russia that it couldn't bully its neighbors. America would exert the democratic influence in Eastern Europe, whether the Bear liked it or not.
Obama has now foregone that assurance. By making this overture to Russia, he has chosen to appease it in order to get support for his (and Bush's) failing Iran policy of appeasement. Now, maybe, Russia won't exercise its veto power in the U.N. Security Council. However, there's still the issue of China--and the President has recently angered it over tire tarriffs--which, in confluence with Russia, usually blocks harsh sanctions against Iran. The scheme is unlikely to work. Iran is going to get the bomb unless somebody blows up their reactors (Mossad, do your stuff...), sanctions or not; direct diplomacy will simply give them a nice photo-op with the U.S., similar to what Hitler got from Neville Chamberlain when the latter sold out Czechoslovakia. It's a fool's errand to think that with a few smiles and nice incentives, they'll give up the chance to become THE power in the Middle East. And America showed that it won't help Iranian dissidents--probably our best hope of stopping the nuclear march. So that card is off the table.
Instead, what we now have is an America that will be ignored by Iran, NATO allies who know that America's promises aren't worth the paper they're written on, Ukraine and Poland--before willing to stand up to Russia with our help--now being left to cower, knowing that what happened to Georgia may easily happen to them (remember the Georgian oil pipeline? Check out the Russian-Ukrainian gas pipelines), and a supreme Russian diplomatic victory.
So, in the end, what do we get?
- Russia maybe helps with Iran. Maybe.
- Those who feel like America has been unduly aggressive are assuaged.
- Ukraine under renewed Russian pressure; no effective U.S. backing
- Poland under renewed Russian pressure; no effective U.S. backing
- Baltic states under renewed Russian pressure; no effective U.S. backing
- United States unwilling to exert influence in Eastern Europe, lest it anger Russia
- No missile defense for long-range missiles in Europe
- United States caves and looks weak; Russians declare victory
- Ukraine and Georgia unlikely to be made NATO countries and provide a buffer for Russian expansionism, lest it anger Russia
- NATO effectively useless (you think we'd act under Article V if Russia attacked Poland? Not under this administration, I would wager. We can't, for one thing, since our military is so overburdened. And Western Europe certainly wouldn't waste resources helping out the East. France and the U.K. will give Poland and Ukraine to Russia the same way they gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler before they willingly put troops into a fight.)
- Iran gets photo-op with U.S.
- Iran balks and rebuffs U.S.
- Iran gets nuclear bomb
- Barack Obama either learns that 'discussions' won't stop apocalyptical Iranian mullahs or appease the resurgent Russians; or he gets defeated soundly in 2012 by someone who does.
P.S. Fred Kagan in Slate talks about why it was a good idea. He uses the example of Kennedy ending the Cuban Missile Crisis by removing our missiles in Turkey. That analogy doesn't hold since, a) even though we had to remove the missiles, we won a diplomatic victory that ended up overthrowing Khrushchev because the removal was kept secret (in this case, our caving was very, very public, and it doesn't appear that the Russians gave anything up), and b) even if it had been made public, we removed them because there were nuclear missiles in Cuba pointing at us. There was an immediate danger that needed to be resolved. Here, there is simply the vague promise of helping to stop Iran (maybe). That's not enough.
* I am aware that the link is not the original announcement, but simply more reporting on the shield from 2007.
UPDATE: Even those in the President's own party are confused, since Russia is saying that they aren't going to help with new Iran sanctions in exchange for the missile defense shield being scrapped. Apparently, the President only believes in unilateral actions when it's the U.S. conceding.
UPDATE II: The New York Times has a pretty idiotic editorial, praising Obama for his decision, saying this:
Mr. Obama will meet in New York next week with President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia. He must make clear that this decision is not a payoff for Moscow’s bullying — and that an improved relationship will depend on Russia’s willingness to treat its neighbors and its people better....The president’s critics are right on one point: The Russians will be watching him closely for any signs of weakness. Mr. Obama must be prepared to press Mr. Medvedev hard on all of these issues.
Are you kidding me? Of course it was a payoff. Putin and Medvedev just learned that under this administration, intransigence has benefits. You think they will give in now? We were willing to give up our good hand for nothing.
US: "You must treat your neighbors better, Russia."
Them: "Uh, don't mess with our internal affairs."
US: "They aren't internal. We will protect our allies."
Them: "We just seized a Georgian ship in Abkhazian waters."
US: "Isn't Abkhazia part of Georgia?"
Them: "Not since we annexed it."
US: "Well, we'll protect our allies anyway."
Them: "Oh, and don't you dare let Ukraine into NATO. Otherwise, we won't help with Iran."
US: "So you'll help with Iran if we don't let them in?"
Them: "We didn't say that."
US: "OK. Sorry."
And, are you kidding me (again)? The Russians will be looking for a sign of weakness? They just saw a sign of weakness because we gave them a huge concession for nothing in return. Giving up something for nothing in international relations is a terrible, terrible idea--especially when it is an untrustworthy competitor on the world stage, and we just did it at a time when American hegemony is already being questioned around the world and Russian hegemony is being demanded (by the Russians).
I try to work under the assumption that the NYT editorial staff just disagrees with me, not that they are complete imbeciles, but it gets tougher every day...