Obama Likely Flexible on Missile Shield, Experts Say

(Feb. 13) -U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns yesterday said Washington would reconsider its missile defense policies if multilateral efforts eliminated nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images).
(Feb. 13) -U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns yesterday said Washington would reconsider its missile defense policies if multilateral efforts eliminated nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images).

U.S. President Barack Obama's refusal so far to take a firm public stance on a Bush administration plan to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe could signal his intention to delay the project indefinitely or to use it as a bargaining tool in negotiations with Russia, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Feb. 5).

The Bush plan, long opposed by Moscow, called for fielding missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic ostensibly to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles. Obama administration officials have suggested reviewing the plan (see GSN, Jan. 16), while Obama himself has only expressed general support for U.S. missile defense efforts that are well vetted and cost-effective.

"I think it's on the back burner," said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who now heads Russia studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I read the Obama and other statements more or less as tentative about this system in the sense that they aren't going to put huge investment in it unless they can figure out it's going to work," he said.

"They may opt to delay the site just because" the $4.5 billion project is competing with other budgetary priorities, added Dean Wilkening, a defense expert at Stanford University.

John Rood, who served as an undersecretary of state during the Bush administration, warned against setting the missile shield plan aside.

"Such a step would be ineffective and send a worrying signal to U.S. allies in Europe, who would question whether the U.S. lacked resolve and was recognizing a Russian sphere of influence in central Europe, which would be a strategic error," Rood said.

Poland today said it expects stronger military ties with the United States whether or not the missile defenses are deployed.

"Poland is in favor of the United States remaining a European superpower," Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told Polish lawmakers, adding that Warsaw remains willing to host U.S. missile interceptors on Polish territory.

"Regardless of what kind of decision the U.S. will take, we expect that the declaration on strategic cooperation will be fulfilled," he said (Robert Burns, Associated Press/Google News, Feb. 13).

Washington would reconsider its missile defense strategy if the international community cooperatively removed the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats, U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns said yesterday.

"If through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way at which we look at missile defense," Burns told Interfax, adding that Washington would continue "to consult closely" on the planned shield "with its partners in the Czech Republic and Poland."

"We certainly have heard Russia's concerns about ... missile defense. We hope also that Russians understand that no U.S. president can afford a situation in which the United States is vulnerable to potential nuclear weapons on missiles from countries like Iran or North Korea.

"As we pursue the issue of missile defense, we obviously have to take into account a number of factors -- whether the system works and whether its cost-effective, and what's the nature of the threat.

"We also are also open to the possibility of cooperation with Russia [and] with our NATO partners on new missile defense configurations which can take advantage of assets that each of us has," Burns said (Interfax, Feb. 12).

February 13, 2009
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U.S. President Barack Obama's refusal so far to take a firm public stance on a Bush administration plan to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe could signal his intention to delay the project indefinitely or to use it as a bargaining tool in negotiations with Russia, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Feb. 5).