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Former Vice President Dick Cheney made news on Oct. 21, 2009, when he accused the White House of "dithering while America's armed forces are in danger" in Afghanistan. That was just one of many fireballs he lobbed at the Obama administration’s policies on Iran, Iraq and the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Cheney also rapped the White House for sloppy diplomacy in its decision to cancel a planned missile-defense radar in the Czech Republic and planned missile interceptors in Poland. The administration decided that the facilities were designed with a less-severe threat – long range missiles – in mind, and that missile-defense efforts should instead be focused on countering short- and medium-range missiles.
Work on the missile-defense facilities – which had prompted strenuous opposition from Russia and mixed feelings by residents of the two Eastern European countries – was conceived during the tenure of Cheney and President George W. Bush. So Cheney’s opposition to Obama’s canceling the project was not surprising.
However, in his speech, Cheney went beyond the substance of the decision and accused the White House of bumbling diplomatic protocol in making its announcement.
"It is certainly not a model of diplomacy when the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic are informed of such a decision at the last minute in midnight phone calls," Cheney told an awards dinner sponsored by the Center for Security Policy, a conservative group. "It took a long time and lot of political courage in those countries to arrange for our interceptor system in Poland and the radar system in the Czech Republic. Our Polish and Czech friends are entitled to wonder how strategic plans and promises years in the making could be dissolved, just like that – with apparently little, if any, consultation. Seventy years to the day after the Soviets invaded Poland, it was an odd way to mark the occasion."
In this item, we will try to determine the timing of when the Obama administration told the Czech Republic and Poland of the decision.
According to many news accounts, Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer was indeed told shortly after midnight, Warsaw time, on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009. (That is, indeed, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion.)
"Just after midnight I was informed," Fischer said, according to the Independent , a British newspaper. The Russian newspaper Vremya Novostey pinpointed the call to 12:21 in the morning.
A call received at 12:21 a.m. in Warsaw would have been placed six hours earlier – 6:21 p.m. in Washington.
News of the decision began to leak out the following morning, Washington time. CNN, for example, reported the decision in its 9 a.m. block of CNN Newsroom . Obama announced it at 10:21 a.m. in a brief address in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room.
So, the time between Obama’s call to Fischer and the formal White House announcement was about 16 hours, most of which was nighttime in one country or the other.
Pinning down the time that Obama contacted Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is a little trickier.
According to Agence France Presse , the Czech leader said that Poland "had been informed in the same way" as he himself had been. But the Russian paper, Vremya Novostey , citing "Polish news media reports," said that a "technical" glitch prevented Obama from speaking to Tusk late Wednesday night, so the conversation "took place only [on Thursday] afternoon." (We presume that is Warsaw time.)
If Obama did finally make personal contact with Tusk that late, it still would have been before the formal White House announcement, though barely.
The White House declined to provide additional details about the timing.
By way of context, it’s worth noting that the announcement was not exactly a surprise.
After Obama's announcement, Fischer himself said that "we knew the United States was reviewing its plan to build the radar ... within a reassessment of specific threats, and that one option might be to give up the plan to build the radar," according to Agence France Presse . "The threats now rest in short- and medium-range missiles, not long-range ones. The American side decided this was the most serious threat and this is their reaction."
It's not clear why the White House chose to make the announcement when it did. Obama still had six days left if he wanted to get the news out before world leaders arrived in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
Asked by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, at a Senate Armed Services hearing whether the announcement could have been handled any better, undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy blamed leak-fueled speculation.
''We too would have preferred a longer period for consultation and rollout, but leaks and speculation in the press sort of forced us to go sooner to set the record straight,'' she said.
As for Cheney's statement, he's definitely right about Fischer, the Czech leader, being contacted about midnight. And although there is a discrepency about the time of the final notification for Poland, the reports indicate that Obama first tried about midnight. So we find Cheney's claim to be True.
of speech to the Center for Security Policy, Oct. 21, 2009
CNN, " CNN Newsroom ," Sept. 17, 2009
President Barack Obama, " Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe ," Sept. 17, 2009
Vremya Novostey (Russian newspaper), article on U.S. missile defense decision translated by BBC Monitoring, Sept. 22, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis
The Independent, " Obama shoots down 'son of Stars Wars' missile shield ," Sept. 18, 2009
Agence France Presse, "US scraps plan to build missile shield in Europe: Czech PM," Sept. 17, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis
Associated Press, " US lawmakers blast Obama for missile defense move ," Sept. 25, 2009
Associated Press, " Obama phones Czech PM on missile defense decision ," Sept. 17, 2009,
Associated Press, " US reassures Poland on missile defense plans ," Sept. 1, 2009
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