One of Barack Obama's former University of Chicago colleagues, Rashid Khalidi, had this to say last spring about having a policy discussion on the Middle East with the president-elect: "You may come away thinking, 'Wow, he agrees with me.' But later, when you get home and think about it, you are not sure."
It was noted more than once during the presidential campaign that Obama has a quality enabling all sorts of folks to project their aspirations on him. That has helped make him the most phenomenally successful politician in a generation. While artful ambiguity can work wonders in winning votes and political friends, it can make for trouble in the complex world of international relations.
Perhaps a case in point came after the election in a perfunctory congratulatory telephone call by Polish President Lech Kaczynski. He reported that Obama said the Bush administration's plan to establish a missile defense system in Eastern Europe would continue. An Obama adviser said he had made no such commitment.
Maybe Obama was clear and Kaczynski was trying to force his hand. Or maybe Obama hadn't transitioned from campaign-speak to the clear messaging necessary once in the White House. At any rate, it's all being written off as a misunderstanding that doesn't amount to much, except for national security hawks worried about the context of the exchange between the two leaders.
The prospect of an anti-missile installation in Poland aroused the ire of the Kremlin, although the base's goal would be to defend Europe against missiles from Iran. The Russians think the system is aimed at them, though it would be too small to be a deterrence to an arsenal the size of Moscow's. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared Russia would "neutralize" the U.S. facility by deploying missiles in Kaliningrad.
This tough stance came the day after Obama won the election and two days before his conversation with Kaczynski. Medvedev has since toned down his rhethoric a bit and called for a conference on European security, but former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton asserts the episode left Obama looking "disturbingly weak."
That remains to be seen. Moreover, the most important statement on the missile issue may have come not from Obama, Medvedev or Kaczynski, but from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "Deployment of a missile-defense system would bring nothing to security in Europe," he said Friday. If the Europeans don't think they need protection from Iran, why should U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for a missile base and put up with the diplomatic grief it would bring?
Sarkozy is the current president of the European Union and spoke at a meeting of EU officials with Medvedev. But the union has little to do with defense issues. And it's not clear that all of Europe agrees with Sarkozy. Obviously Poland does not, and the Czech Republic, next in line for the EU presidency, was quick to criticize Sarkozy.
Lingering over this is the larger question of the West's commitment to reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions. Would Europe's abandoning the missile base be viewed as appeasement in Tehran?
Still, Sarkozy has presented a gift to Obama. He has been cool to missile defense. "His position is as it was throughout the campaign, that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable," an Obama spokesman said. It's a paradox that Americans opposed to missile defense question whether it can work, while our adversaries seem to have no problem imagining U.S. ingenuity producing a "Star Wars" shield.
However this plays out, Obama should take a lesson from his confused phone conversation with Poland's president. History tells us that words do matter. In an ambiguous January 1950 speech, Secretary of State Dean Acheson appeared to leave South Korea out of America's defense parameter; six months later, communist North Korea invaded the south, and the Korean War was on.