U.S. drops Europe missile shield plan as Iran threat reassessed
Bush administration plan to deploy shield in Poland, Czech Republic had strained U.S.-Russia relations.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday shelved a Bush-era plan for an Eastern European missile defense plan that has been a major irritant in U.S. relations with Russia. He said a redesigned defensive system would be cheaper and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said in an announcement from the White House. "It is more comprehensive than the previous program, it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland."
The missile defense system, planned under the Bush administration, was to have been built in the Czech Republic and Poland. Obama phoned Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer on Wednesday night and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Thursday to alert them of his decision.
It was immediately unclear whether any part of the new system would still be installed in those nations, which agreed to host the Bush-planned shield at considerable cost in public opinion and their relations with Russia. Obama said the U.S. will continue to work cooperatively with what he called our close friends and allies.
But the president said the old plan was scrapped in part because, after a seven-month review, the U.S. has concluded that Iran is less focused on developing the kind of long-range missiles for which the system was originally developed, making the building of an expensive new shield unnecessary. New technology also has arisen that military advisers decided could be deployed sooner and more effectively, he said.
Anticipating criticism from the right that he was weakening America's security, Obama said repeatedly that this decision would provide more - not less - protection.
"I'm committed to deploying strong missile defense systems that are adaptable to the threats of the 21st century," the president said.
The criticism came immediately.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, said he would work to overturn this wrong-headed policy.
"Scrapping our missile defense effort in Europe has severe consequences for our diplomatic relations and weakens our national security," Cantor said in a statement. "Our allies, especially Poland and the Czech Republic, deserve better and our people deserve smarter and safer."
Obama also made a pointed reference to Russia and its long and heated objections to the shield. "Its concerns about our previous missile defense programs were entirely unfounded," Obama said.
Still, the decision can be read at least in part as an effort to placate Russia at a time when its support against Iran's suspected nuclear program has not been forthcoming and is sorely needed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters the changes stem from intelligence experts' conclusion that short- and medium-range missiles were developing more rapidly than previously projected in Iran.
Gates said the U.S. would move away from the installation of a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland in the near future. But he said a second phase of the new plan, to begin in 2015, could result in missiles being placed on land in Eastern Europe.
With this decision, Obama faced the dilemma of either setting back the gradual progress toward repairing relations with Russia or disappointing the Czech Republic and Poland, two key NATO allies.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is preparing to visit the United States next week for the United Nations General Assembly and the Group of 20 nations economic summit.
The plan for a European shield was a darling of the Bush administration, which reached deals to install 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic - eastern European nations at Russia's doorstep and once under Soviet sway. Moscow argued vehemently that the system would undermine the nuclear deterrent of its vast arsenal.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Thursday, "this improvement to the system has nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with Iran."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the U.S. decision a positive step.
And Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said, "it reflects understanding that any security measure can't be built entirely on the basis of one nation.
A top Senate Republican, Jon Kyl, called the decision dangerous and short-sighted.
The message the administration sends today is clear: The United States will not stand behind its friends and views 're-setting' relations with Russia more important, said the Arizona senator. This is wrong!
Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in last year's presidential election, called the decision a disappointment that has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe.