(by Peter Spiegel, WSJ.com) WASHINGTON — The White House will shelve Bush administration plans to build a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move likely to cheer Moscow and roil the security debate in Europe.
The U.S. will base its decision on a determination that Iran’s long-range missile program hasn’t progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The findings, expected to be completed as early as next week following a 60-day review ordered by President Barack Obama, would be a major reversal from the Bush administration, which pushed aggressively to begin construction of the Eastern European system before leaving office in January.Mr. Obama is expected to make a public announcement later today.
Russia on Thursday welcomed the news, but said it saw no reason to offer concessions in return. Russia President Dmitry Medvedev threatened last November to station tactical Iskander missiles on Poland’s border if the U.S. system was deployed.
“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 Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in a phone interview.
The Obama administration’s move was confirmed by the Czech Republic interim prime minister. “Just after midnight I was informed in a telephone call by President Barack Obama that [his] administration has decided to pull out from the plan missile defense shield installations” in the Czech Republic and Poland, said Jan Fischer said at a press conference Thursday.
The Bush administration proposed the European-based system to counter the perceived threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon that could be placed atop its increasingly sophisticated missiles. There is widespread disagreement over the progress of Iran’s nuclear program toward developing such a weapon, but miniaturizing nuclear weapons for use on long-range missiles is one of the most difficult technological hurdles for an aspiring nuclear nation.
The Bush plan infuriated the Kremlin, which argued the system was a potential threat to its own intercontinental ballistic missiles. U.S. officials repeatedly insisted the location and limited scale of the system — a radar site in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland — posed no threat to Russian strategic arms.
The Obama administration’s assessment concludes that U.S. allies in Europe, including members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, face a more immediate threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles and will order a shift towards the development of regional missile defenses for the Continent, according to people familiar with the matter. Such systems would be far less controversial.
Critics of the shift are bound to view it as a gesture to win Russian cooperation with U.S.-led efforts to seek new economic sanctions on Iran if Tehran doesn’t abandon its nuclear program. Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has opposed efforts to impose fresh sanctions on Tehran.
Security Council members, which include the U.S. and Russia, will meet with Iranian negotiators on Oct. 1 to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.
Current and former U.S. officials briefed on the assessment’s findings said the administration was expected to leave open the option of restarting the Polish and Czech system if Iran makes advances in its long-range missiles in the future.
The decision to shelve the defense system is all but certain to raise alarms in Eastern Europe, where officials have expressed concerns that the White House’s effort to “reset” relations with Moscow would come at the expense of U.S. allies in the former Soviet bloc. “The Poles are nervous,” said a senior U.S. military official.
Earlier, a Polish official said his government wouldn’t “speculate” on administration decisions regarding missile defense, but said “we expect the U.S. will abide by its commitments” to cooperate with Poland militarily in areas beyond the missile-defense program.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he expected the Obama administration to drop the missile-defense plans. He said that Moscow wouldn’t view the move as a concession but rather a reversal of a mistaken Bush-era policy.
Still, the decision is likely to be seen in Russia as a victory for the Kremlin. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will meet with Mr. Obama at next week’s meetings of the U.N. General Assembly and Group of 20 industrialized and developing nations.
Although a center-right government in Prague supported the Bush missile-defense plan when it was first proposed, the Czech Republic is now run by a caretaker government. A Czech official said his government was concerned an announcement by the White House on the missile-defense program could influence upcoming elections and has urged a delay. But the Obama administration has decided to keep to its original timetable.
European analysts said the administration would be forced to work hard to convince both sides the decision wasn’t made to curry favor with Moscow and, instead, relied only on the program’s technical merits and analysis of Iran’s missile capabilities.
-Marc Champion in Moscow contributed to this article.
1. What was the purpose of the missile-defense system (a radar site in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland) proposed by the Bush administration?
2. a) What is the Kremlin?
b) How did the Kremlin react to the Bush plan?
c) How did U.S. officials address the Kremlin’s concern?
3. How does the Obama administration differ from the Bush administration in its view of the missile-defense system?
4. How are critics of the decision to shelve the missile-defense system expected to view this change?
5. How are Eastern European governments expected to react to the decision to shelve the defense system?
6. How is the Russian government expected to view the decision?
7. a) Experts differ on their estimate of how long it will take Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, and what capabilities their missiles will have. Read the “Background” and “Resources” below for some additional information. Do you agree with the Obama administration’s decision to shelve the nuclear missile-defense system? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent the same question.
THE U.S. MISSILE-DEFENSE SYSTEM:
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 to use ground-based and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. The SDI was intended to defend the United States from attack from Soviet ICBMs by intercepting the missiles at various phases of their flight.
The initiative focused on strategic defense rather than the prior strategic offense doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), that assumed that neither side would start a nuclear war because it would not be able to avoid imminent destruction. Reagan’s “Star Wars” program drew the Soviets into a costly effort to mount a response. The race depleted Soviet funds and triggered the economic difficulties that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Read a detailed report on the U.S. Missile Defense System at heritage.org/Research/MissileDefense/bg1798.cfm.
For background information on Poland, go to the CIA World FactBook website here.
Read a commentary about the missile defense system in Poland here.