President Sarkozy now says that an American missile defense system in Eastern Europe might not be such a bad idea after all as a "supplement" to other defenses against ... Iran. In other words, Sarko and Bush are now back on the same page. So ... who got to him in Washington?
Sarkozy's independence on this issue was to me a healthy sign of a vigorous multilateralism. He correctly perceived the way in which Washington's provocation was empowering hard-liners in Russia. He therefore offered Russian soft-liners support: withdraw your countermove against the American threat, do not redeploy your offensive weapons systems, and I will do what I can to persuade the Americans that this is a bad idea. If I fail, you can resume your symbolic gesture (and that's all it is, really: moving truck- and rail-mounted offensive missiles closer to a NATO border is hardly a serious military move, since such systems can always be deployed on short notice if tensions rise; to move them now rather than later is a political quid pro quo for the anticipated construction of American radar sites and antimissile launch pads, which, by contrast, is a serious move, since it involves new fixed bases).
Of course Sarkozy can still be playing this game behind the scenes, but by seeming to fall in with today's American line, he weakens his hand and heightens Russian suspicions, since he reneges on a position he took only days ago after meeting Medvedev in Nice.
The really worrisome thing is that he has backtracked because he heard from someone in Washington that Obama would be sticking to Bush's line on the missiles. Now, who might that have been? Madeline Albright was one of Obama's two representatives at the G20, and Albright, with her well-known anti-Russian views, would likely be on board with Bush's thinking. But is this really Obama's position? The Poles indeed said that it was after a five-minute phone call between Obama and the Polish premier last week, but the Obama transition team rapidly denied that the subject had been discussed. Still, when you add up the various maneuvers, and credit Sarkozy with a certain savvy in this kind of game, it certainly looks as though he's been tipped that there will be no change in American policy on the missiles in the near term despite the change of administration.
I don't like the signs, although it may be that the "defensive" missiles are merely a ploy to persuade the Russians to join in sanctions against Iran, as Dennis Ross has suggested according to this article in the Times of London (h/t Boz). But is such a threat really necessary to move the Russians? Wouldn't a withdrawal of the threat coupled with a promise to undertake a comprehensive review of US and European policy toward Russia once a new American administration is in place be a better ploy?