Obama Scraps European Missile Defense Initiative

(Sep. 17) -A U.S. ground-based missile interceptor is placed in a silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in 2005. President Barack Obama today announced he has dropped a proposal to deploy 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).
(Sep. 17) -A U.S. ground-based missile interceptor is placed in a silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in 2005. President Barack Obama today announced he has dropped a proposal to deploy 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

U.S. President Barack Obama said today he does not plan to pursue his predecessor's plan to deploy missile defenses in Europe, the Wall Street Journal reported (see GSN, Sept. 14).

"After an extensive process, I have approved the unanimous recommendations of my secretary of defense and my Joint Chiefs of Staff to strengthen America's defenses against ballistic-missile attack," Obama said.

The administration instead plans to develop what it sees as a less-expensive, more-effective system to safeguard U.S. personnel in Europe and friendly nations on the continent from Iranian missiles, according to the Journal.

"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said. "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 Bush administration had argued that deployment of 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic was a necessary extra line of defense against a developing missile threat from Iran. The plan had been controversial in the proposed host countries and vehemently opposed by Russia.

"The Bush plans on the missile defense as we knew them until now were nothing more than a provocation of security in the European region," said Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin. Moscow, though, does not appear prepared to offer anything in return for the reversal.

Washington now believes that Iran's long-range missile work is moving more slowly than anticipated, meaning there is less risk to the United States and prominent cities in Europe, present and former U.S. officials told the Journal. The more pressing threat to European allies is from short- and medium-range missiles that Tehran is "developing more rapidly than previously projected," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Such threats call for a smaller-scale defense system that is not likely to raise as much ire as the old plan, sources said (Peter Spiegel, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 17).

"While the Iranian threat has developed, so too has our technology," said U.S. Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell.

"We have made a major adjustment and enhancement to our European missile defense system that will better protect our forces deployed in Europe and our allies there from Iranian short- and medium-range missiles," he said.

The new plan could involve sea-based defenses, sources told the Associated Press. Previous reports have also indicated that systems might be deployed in Turkey, Israel or the Balkans.

"We have made a new threat assessment, so we're revising the architecture to meet the short and medium ballistic missile threat from Iran. The new system will be more adaptable, mobile and defensible," said one U.S. official (Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Sept. 17).

Washington could maintain the possibility of revisiting the plan for Poland and the Czech Republic should Iran's long-range missile development make notable gains, sources told the Journal.

The move is likely to be seen as a gesture to Moscow, in line with the Obama administration's intent to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations. It will be a cause for concern in Eastern European nations, where some officials worry that they would lose out in Washington's diplomatic outreach to its former Cold War rival.

"The Poles are nervous," according to one high-level U.S. military official.

Both European states were offered incentives for accepting the U.S. installations, including deployment of U.S. Patriot systems in Poland. "We expect the U.S. will abide by its commitments," said one Polish official before the formal announcement was made.

U.S. officials will have to prove that the decision was technical rather than political, according to experts.

"There are two audiences: the Russians and the various European countries," said Sarah Mendelson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The task is: How do they cut through the conspiracy theories in Moscow?" (Spiegel, Wall Street Journal).

There was a wide range of reactions to the decision, according to news agencies.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the move was "dangerous and short-sighted."

"Despite the fact that Poland and the Czech Republic have committed their soldiers to fight alongside U.S. forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, today the administration has turned its back on these allies," he said.

Added fellow Arizona Republican Senator John McCain: "This decision calls into question security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe" (Associated Press I).

Some sources in Russia said the move might be taken by hard-line elements at the Kremlin as an indication of weakness and an opening to extend Russian influence among former Soviet states, Reuters reported.

"I think this is a near catastrophe for American relations with Eastern European countries and many in NATO," said John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador the United Nations during the Bush administration. "I think it was the kind of unilateral decision that the Bush administration was always criticized for and I think the clear winners are in Russia and Iran."

Another observer was less concerned.

"I don't think the enemy is just outside our gate. ...There is no sense in building a sense of danger from Russia," said Warsaw University sociology professor Iwona Jakubowska-Branicka. "It's a different world now. Russia cannot just enter Poland, take part of the Czech Republic or carve up Slovakia" (Mlcochova/Baczynska, Reuters/Yahoo!News, Sept. 17).

By shutting down the missile shield plan, Washington might be promoting its chances of reaching a new nuclear arms control deal with Moscow, one expert told the London Guardian. The two nations have been negotiating a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires on Dec. 1 (see GSN, Sept. 14).

"Hard-liners in Russia don't want an agreement on START. It will be very difficult now for Russia to avoid an agreement," said Russian defense analyst Ruben Sergeyev. "It (the decision to drop the U.S. shield) creates a very positive ambiance, despite the fact it was really an artificial thing" (Harding/Traynor, London Guardian, Sept. 17).

Former leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic said the decision would illustrate the Obama administration's lesser focus on Eastern Europe in comparison to the government of former President George W. Bush, the Associated Press reported.

"The Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before," said former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government OK'd the radar installation.

"It's not good," said former Polish President Lech Walesa.

"I can see what kind of policy the Obama administration is pursuing towards this part of Europe," he said. "The way we are being approached needs to change."

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, though, put a positive spin on the situation.

"It is my clear impression that the American plan on missile defense will involve NATO .... to a higher degree in the future," he said. "This is a positive step in the direction of an inclusive and transparent process, which I also think is in the interest of ... the NATO alliance" (Janicek/Kole, Associated Press II/Yahoo!News, Sept. 17).

September 17, 2009
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U.S. President Barack Obama said today he does not plan to pursue his predecessor's plan to deploy missile defenses in Europe, the Wall Street Journal reported (see GSN, Sept. 14).