Inter Press Service
In a move with potentially major strategic implications, U.S. President Barack Obama announced Thursday he is scrapping plans by the George W. Bush administration to deploy long-range-missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The United States will instead deploy what Obama called “proven, cost-effective” systems more swiftly throughout Europe – and possibly beyond – to deter and defend against possible attacks by Iranian short- and middle-range missiles on which the Islamic Republic has been focusing its development efforts.
“To put it simply, our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies,” Obama said, noting that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces had unanimously recommended adoption of the new strategy. Gates served as Bush’s Pentagon chief from 2006 to 2009.
The move, which was swiftly endorsed as a “positive step” by the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was also greeted positively by the Kremlin, whose spokesmen said the decision should remove a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations.
Moscow’s leaders have long charged that the Bush plan was directed primarily against Russia, rather than Iran or other “rogue states” that might acquire the capability of launching nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as Washington had always insisted.
In his statement, Obama reiterated that position, and other U.S. officials said the change in strategy was unrelated to his desire to “re-set” U.S.-Russian relations.
“We’ve…repeatedly made clear to Russia that its concerns about our previous missile defense programmers were entirely unfounded,” Obama insisted.
“Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program, and that continues to be our focus and the basis of the program that we’re announcing today,” he stressed, inviting “Russia’s cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests, even as we continue our shared efforts to end Iran’s illicit nuclear program.”
Proponents of the abandoned program, however, were livid at the decision, suggesting that both Tehran and Moscow would benefit at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl described it as “dangerous and short-sighted” that would not only “leave America vulnerable to the growing Iranian long-range missile threat, (but) also turns back the clock to the days of the Cold War.”
Former Bush U.N. Ambassador John Bolton denounced the decision as “pre-emptive capitulation” and “a convenient smoke-screen to do what (the Obama administration) wanted to do anyway, which is to give up on missile defense in the hope the Russians will be nice to us.”
“It is a concession to the Russians with absolutely nothing in return,” he told the BBC.
Thursday’s announcement followed a lengthy review of Washington’s missile defense strategy, and particularly Bush’s controversial plan to deploy a sophisticated radar-guided, ground-based interceptor system in the Czech Republic and Poland, by Obama’s top national security advisers.
The system, which has never been tested, was supposed to become operative by 2012. While some Polish and Czech leaders saw the plan as a useful demonstration of Washington’s commitment to protect their countries against pressure from a resurgent Moscow, their parliaments never actually ratified the basing agreements that would have been required to implement it.
Meanwhile, the urgency of the threat against which the system was nominally designed – long-range missile attacks by Iran – appears to have diminished, according to the latest government and independent assessments of Tehran’s missile development program. The latest estimate is that Iran is unlikely to have an ICBM capability until 2015 at the earliest.
“It would have been extremely unwise to proceed with the Bush administration’s plan to rush untested interceptors into Poland to deal with an Iranian long-range missile threat that does not yet exist,” noted Tom Collina, the research director of the non-governmental Arms Control Association (ACA).
Tehran, on the other hand, has made much more progress on short- and medium-range missiles that theoretically could be launched against closer targets, including southern Europe, Israel, Washington’s Arab allies in the Middle East and the Gulf, as well as U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Ironically, the Bush plan did nothing to address those threats,” noted Gregory Thielmann a former senior State Department intelligence analyst who now works with ACA.
In that respect, according to Joe Cirincione, a nuclear-proliferation expert who heads the Ploughshares Fund here, the new plan strikes a “more aggressive posture” against the alleged threat posed by Iran’s missile program than Bush’s.
“You will see the Obama administration deploying [missile] interceptors much more quickly off of Iran,” Cirincione, a former adviser to the Obama campaign, told a press teleconference arranged by the National Security Network.
He said he expected Washington to deploy sea-based Aegis missile defense systems, probably in the Black Sea, by 2011.
At a Pentagon news conference following Obama’s announcement, Gates stressed that the new system would put land-based interceptor systems in Europe as well. Thielmann suggested that the change of strategy may also permit Washington to take advantage of Russian radar systems in Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor.
Obama’s decision will no doubt help “re-set” relations with Moscow as both countries enter into bilateral negotiations to reduce their nuclear arsenals. However, it remains unclear whether it will also induce greater cooperation by the Kremlin in U.S. efforts to impose new sanctions on Tehran in the event that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program – set to begin Oct. 1 – do not bear fruit.
Before their appointments, several senior Obama officials now assigned to the Iranian nuclear file suggested publicly that Washington should be prepared to give up Bush’s missile defense plan in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for such cooperation by Moscow.
Another major issue raised by Thursday’s announcement will be the reaction in Warsaw, Prague, and other capitals of former Soviet bloc countries worried about Russia’s increasingly assertive stance in its neighborhood.
Obama, who reportedly personally informed the Polish and Czech heads of government before the announcement, has dispatched top officials to the region to reassure them about Washington’s continued commitment to their defense.
Washington is already legally committed to defending those eastern European nations, including Poland and the Czech Republic, that are members of NATO.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.