Obama scraps controversial long-range missile defense shield

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he's canceling the Bush administration's controversial missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, citing new U.S. intelligence estimates that show the threat from long-range Iranian ballistic missiles is growing more slowly than previously thought.

Obama, citing a Pentagon review of the program, said he'd proceed instead with a cheaper and less diplomatically sensitive anti-missile program that would, at least in its early phases, be based aboard U.S. Navy ships at sea.

Russia had angrily opposed the Bush administration's plans to deploy missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

The new White House plan appeared aimed at part at gaining Moscow's cooperation in curbing Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program and boosting U.S.-Russian talks on a new strategic arms treaty. Senior U.S. officials, however, denied seeking any quid pro quo.

Obama's move caused consternation in Poland and the Czech Republic, two close post-Cold War U.S. allies and former Soviet satellites whose governments had agreed to host the missile defense sites despite popular opposition.

Obama said he'd spoken to the prime ministers of both countries and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to their security.

In what appeared to be a hastily scheduled White House appearance after overnight leaks of his decision, Obama said the new systems he was proposing "will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defense of American forces and America's allies."

He said his decision was based in part on the updated intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs, which emphasized its progress on short- and medium-range weapons, as opposed to long-range ones.

Republicans, who've advocated missile defenses since President Ronald Reagan's 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars," swiftly denounced Obama's decision as a retreat and an invitation for Russia to coerce its former satellites.

The decision "does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "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 the most important defenses against Iran off the table."

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, complained that Obama "has secured no apparent commitment from the Russians to work with us to reduce either the missile or nuclear threat from Iran. More troubling will be if the administration has made these concessions to Russia in pursuit of expediting ill-considered arms control deals."

Administration spokesmen said that Russian views didn't drive the new missile defense strategy, which they said was based on estimates of the Iranian threat, cost and technology.

"This is not about Russia," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. Obama wanted to deploy a system that was "both technologically and cost effective. We did not want to deploy something that didn't work," Gibbs said.

Russia has adopted a less alarmist view of Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program than the U.S. and Israel have, and as recently as last week reiterated its opposition to tough new sanctions. The United States says it will have no choice but to seek such sanctions if six-nation nuclear talks with Iran that are scheduled to begin Oct. 1 fail.

A senior Western European diplomat said that while the Russians would see the new U.S. missile-defense policy "as a gesture of good will toward them," he doubted that it would prompt concessions from Moscow on other fronts, much less from the Iranians. The diplomat spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk more frankly.

Obama's national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, informed Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of the new missile defense approach about the time the president was announcing it.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Obama's decision. "We value the U.S president's responsible approach towards implementing our agreements," he said, according to the Reuters news agency. "I am ready to continue the dialogue." Obama and Medvedev plan to meet next week in New York during the annual U.N. General Assembly.

As a presidential candidate, and now as president, Obama expressed skepticism about missile defenses and has signaled as much to Russia's leaders. He's put a priority instead on negotiating a new U.S.-Russia arms control agreement and finding ways to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Little more than a year ago, in August 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Poland to sign an agreement to construct a U.S. missile-defense interceptor site. That system, which critics said had never been tested adequately, now has been canceled.

Senior administration officials said that Iran had put considerable effort into building short- and medium-range missiles since 2006, and now had "a couple hundred."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a news briefing that the new approach would allow the United States to deploy missile defenses sooner and would make it harder for Russia to continue to argue that the system was aimed against it.

The Bush approach called for land-based missile interceptors to take out ballistic missiles launched from Iran, with the help of tracking radars. The system Obama is proposing would be based, at least in the first phase, aboard Navy ships equipped with an anti-missile weapon known as the SM-3. SM stands for Standard Missile.

The system, which the White House said would be deployed around 2011, in theory would protect against missiles launched from the Middle East and headed toward Europe but wouldn't protect the United States.

A second phase of the project would involve a more capable version of the Navy's SM-3 based on land and at sea, and more sophisticated sensors to detect and track enemy missile launches.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)

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