Why Obama dropped European missile defense shield

Administration cites technological advances and a shifting threat from Iran. But many in Eastern Europe worry the US is simply appeasing Russia.

Charles Dharapak / AP
President Barack Obama speaks about the US missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, that had deeply angered Russia, on Thursday at the White House in Washington.

President Obama's decision to abandon a planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe reflects a cost-benefit analysis by an administration that was skeptical of the program from the start, concluding the system posed more hurdles – both diplomatically and in implementation – than it resolved.

In a Thursday morning announcement at the White House, Mr. Obama said a careful review of the proposed system, which would have placed fixed missile interceptors and radar stations in Poland and the Czech Republic, resulted in a unanimous recommendation from the secretary of Defense and other top military advisers to scrap the plan.

In its place, Obama said a new system would be implemented – one taking into account both recent technology advancements but also assessments showing that the potential threat from Iran has shifted. Those assessments conclude that Tehran has refocused its ballistic efforts on short- and medium-range missiles instead of on long-range missiles that could have threatened more distant allies and US forces.

The decision reflects not only the administration's policy review but also consultations with European allies since Obama took office.

An ongoing discussion among NATO allies on how the objectives of such a system could be achieved at a lower cost was stepped up under the Obama team, a senior European diplomat in Washington says.

"There were long discussions about how it could be done less expensively and more efficiently," he says. "I think this decision reflects that."

The decision has potentially far-reaching diplomatic impact.

Much of the snap reaction to Obama's announcement interpreted it as reflective of the administration's desire to pursue less confrontational and more productive relations with Russia on issues ranging from stopping Iran's nuclear program to disarmament.

Some observers caution that it would be a mistake to view the decision primarily as a bow to Russia.

"This is not really a concession [to Russia]," the senior European official says. It's "really [the result of] a technical assessment of the pros and cons of such a system."

But others worry that the decision could pose problems for the US, especially in Eastern Europe, if it is not fully explained to all partners.

"There are a couple of key risks in this: One, the idea that America is unpredictable, that what one administration signs on to is easily abandoned by another," says Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The other is that this is seen as appeasing Russia, and that leads to fears that America is willing to sacrifice [other partners] to further its desire for cooperation with Russia."

The core motivation of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic in considering the missile defense program was never a fear of Iran, says Mr. Bugajski, but rather cementing a US commitment to their own defense, especially in the context of a resurgent and aggressive Russia.

"All those questions were always more important than missile defense itself," he says.

Supporters of the system envisioned under the Bush administration were swift to criticize Obama's decision. In an interview with Reuters, John Bolton, a Bush administration diplomat, called the decision "a near catastrophe for American relations with Eastern European countries and many in NATO."

But Bugajski says the Obama administration can act to reassure its allies by sending an envoy to Eastern Europe to explain the decision and to reaffirm the American commitment to the region's security. Vice President Joe Biden, who was closely involved in the missile defense review and who is known and respected in Eastern Europe for his understanding of Russia, would be the right emissary, Bugajski says.

Still, he notes, Obama picked perhaps the worst day possible to make this announcement.

"The timing couldn't have been worse, since Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the Soviet invasion" of Eastern Poland in 1939, he says. "It brings up all kinds of memories and sensitivities about invasion, partition, and abandonment."


Russia's response to missile shield shift

Moscow has long opposed a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the US shouldn't expect too much in return.


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