President Barack Obama on Thursday scrapped the Bush-era plan for a missile shield to defend Eastern Europe, prompting some Republicans to immediately accuse the White House of going soft.
Obama promised a redesigned defensive system, saying it would be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles. The Bush-era plan had complicated ties with Russia, which objected to where the shield installations would be built.
Anticipating criticism from the right that he was weakening America's security, Obama said repeatedly that this decision would provide more — not less — protection.
"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."
Obama said the decision had been made based on "unanimous recommendations" by his national security team, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
McCain: 'Seriously misguided'
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008, blasted the move as "seriously misguided" and said it would fray ties with Eastern European nations that "are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism."
John Bolton, a leading hawk during the Bush administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said it was "just unambiguously bad decision. Russia and Iran are the big winners. I just think it's a bad day for American national security."
House Minority Leader John Boehner echoed those views. "Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe,” he said in a statement. "It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world, while taking one of most important defenses against Iran off the table."
The Bush-era system 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.
Obama said the plan was scrapped in part because, after a review, the United States 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.
‘Updated intelligence assessment’
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the decision to abandon the plan came about because of a change in the U.S. perception of the threat posed by Iran.
Gates said intelligence experts concluded the short- and medium-range missiles were "developing more rapidly than previously projected" in Iran.
The New York Times, quoting people familiar with the matter, reported that the revised plan would call for the deployment of smaller SM-3 missiles, initially aboard ships and later likely in Turkey or southern Europe.
"Our review has been driven by an updated intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs and new advances in our missile defense capabilities and technologies," The Times quoted an administration official saying on condition of anonymity.
The Times reported that recent intelligence indicated that Iran was moving quickly toward developing short- and medium-range missiles. The reconfigured U.S. defense system would be calibrated more specifically toward meeting that threat by stationing interceptor missiles closer to Iran, administration officials told The Times.
OBama said the United States will continue to work cooperatively with what he called "our close friends and allies" — the Czech Republic and Poland, which had agreed to host the Bush-planned shield at considerable cost in public opinion and their relations with Russia.
He also made a 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.
Obama faced the dilemma of either setting back the gradual progress toward repairing relations with Russia or disappointing two key NATO allies, the Czech Republic and Poland, that agreed to host components of the planned system.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the U.S. decision "a positive step."
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said that the decision "reflects understanding that any security measure can't be built entirely on the basis of one nation."
Ellen Tauscher, a U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, briefed Czech officials in Prague and Polish officials in Warsaw on Thursday about Obama's decision.
"This would confirm that Central Europe is not in the center of the Obama administration's interest," said Jaroslaw Gowin, lawmaker for Poland's ruling Civic Platform party. "But maybe the U.S. will offer us an alternative."
Tusk, the Polish premier, said Obama assured him in a phone call Thursday that U.S. plans to alter the missile defense project will not hurt Poland's security.
The decision to scrap the plan could have future consequences for U.S. relations with the region.
"If the administration approaches us in the future with any request, I would be strongly against it," said Jan Vidim, a lawmaker with Czech Republic's conservative Civic Democratic Party, which supported the missile defense plan.
Attempt to shift Russian relations
The Obama administration has been seeking closer ties with Moscow. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is preparing to visit the United States next week for the U.N. 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 has argued that the system would undermine the nuclear deterrent of its vast arsenal.
Medvedev has praised Obama for reviewing the plans, though the current American administration has maintained its predecessor’s argument that the European missile defense plans are aimed at countering a threat from Iran and pose no threat to Russia.
At an Army missile defense conference last month, military officials discussed possible alternatives for European missile defense, including using shorter-range interceptors from other locations closer to Iran.
U.S. Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who has been a point man on the technical challenge of arraying missiles and interceptors to defend against long-range missiles, has discussed ways the United States might join forces with other nations to watch and protect against Iranian missiles. Using multiple sensors, including some in the Persian Gulf region, theoretically could provide at least a partial shield for Eastern Europe without basing a full radar and interceptor system so close to Russia.