Obama scuttles Bush plan for missile shield

Scraps Czech, Polish sites; GOP says act ‘misguided’

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia welcomed the “responsible’’ decision by President Obama. President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia welcomed the “responsible’’ decision by President Obama.
By Ann Scott Tyson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post / September 18, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama said yesterday that he is abandoning Bush administration plans for a long-range missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, turning instead to a land- and sea-based system of sensors and interceptors that is focused on stopping shorter-range missiles that could be fired from Iran.

The system embraced by President George W. Bush in 2007 had been strongly opposed by Russia, which viewed the prospect of a missile shield system on its western border as an affront. Although Obama made a point of saying his decision was based on strategic US interests rather than diplomatic concerns, the decision could aid his efforts to “reset’’ US-Russian relations and could also remove an impediment to negotiations on finding a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in early December.

Obama said the system he is embracing is more cost-effective, uses proven technology, and will offer “stronger, smarter, and swifter defense of American forces and America’s allies.’’ It would deploy smaller SM-3 missiles, at first aboard ships and later on land somewhere in Europe, possibly even in Poland or the Czech Republic.

The president said he was accepting the recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Obama’s statement from the White House, hastily arranged after news of the decision leaked overnight, was followed by a news conference at the Pentagon, where Gates, who as Bush’s defense secretary publicly embraced the longer-range system, defended Obama’s move.

The decision, however, sparked immediate condemnation from Republicans in Congress, who accused the administration of abandoning America’s allies and putting the country’s security at risk.

The top House Republican, John Boehner of Ohio, said in a statement that the move “does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe. 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.’’

That concern was echoed by Obama’s GOP challenger last year, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who called the move away from a missile system designed to counter long-range weapons “seriously misguided.’’

One Republican, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, went as far as to accuse Obama of appeasement, noting that yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. “Appeasement of dangerous nations does not inspire peace,’’ Blunt said in a statement.

In his briefing, Gates anticipated those criticisms.

“Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,’’ Gates said. “The security of Europe has been a vital national interest of the United States for my entire career. The circumstances, borders, and threats may have changed, but that commitment continues.’’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who was a strong critic of the Bush shield, called Obama’s decision “brilliant’’ and hailed it as “a giant step forward.’’

Two other key Democrats - Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee - also endorsed Obama’s move.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia welcomed the “responsible’’ decision by Obama and said conditions are “good’’ for Russian-US cooperation on assessing the risks of missile proliferation. The two leaders will discuss the issue of “strategic stability,’’ including missile defense, in New York on Sept. 23, he said.

Still, some of America’s staunchest allies are the East Europeans, and they expressed dismay at what many see as a slight after decades of their support for the United States.

Former prime minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government signed treaties with the Bush administration to build the radar system and who was ousted earlier this year partly because of his stand, went on Czech radio to vent his frustrations.

“The Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before,’’ he said.

Material from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News was also used in this report.