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President Obama Seeks Russian Support on Missile Plan

November 19, 2010 at 5:44 PM EST
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At the NATO Summit in Portugal, President Obama looked to bolster support for a missile defense plan and Afghan war timetable. Margaret Warner provides a report from Lisbon.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke with Margaret Warner in Lisbon about all this a short time ago.

Margaret, hello. Now, what is the significance of this missile defense treaty?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, it is a significant event, when you remember that, when President Bush proposed a similar idea three-and-a-half years ago, the Russians reacted angrily and even the Western Europeans were nervous.

Today, the NATO allies agreed that, in fact, this should be a goal of the NATO alliance to build a Europe-wide missile defense shield, which would also link to the United States, ultimately, like in its fourth phase, and will protect U.S. troops here in the meantime.

And so it’s a clear signal, really, to Tehran, though Iran wasn’t specifically mentioned in the document, as, say, the French had hoped.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did it come together, Margaret? Was it a tough sell with the Europeans?

MARGARET WARNER: It was in some respects.

Now, the first three phases had already been agreed on. That is, the interceptors and radar will be first on U.S. ships at sea, and then to Romania by 2015, Poland by 2018. They had all agreed. But Turkey was the missing link. Turkey has to house some installation as well.

And the Turks, who are trying to build friendly relations with their neighbor Iran, were balking. Now the Turks have signed on to the concept. The details will be worked out. The mechanisms will be worked out.

The other big deal is that the Russians now, who initially thought this was aimed at them, President Obama has worked hard to refashion the proposal to persuade them it’s not aimed at Russian — the Russian nuclear deterrent, but at Iran. And when President Medvedev arrives here tomorrow, U.S. officials and NATO officials hope they will not only agree to the idea, or support the idea, but perhaps even agree to take part in some way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the Russians will be part of this missile defense agreement.

And, then, separately, Margaret, the U.S. is resetting, so to speak, its relationship with Russia, in part with the so-called New START treaty, something that has hit a roadblock with Republicans back here in Washington. Can President Obama make any headway on that over there?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, White House officials clearly hope to use this START meeting — I mean — excuse me — this NATO meeting to persuade, to show the world that the whole Western alliance agrees that START is essential to Western security.

So, for example, the Polish foreign minister wrote an op-ed on a global Web site today saying START was essential to Eastern and Central Europe security. Now, that’s a direct response to Senator Voinovich, the moderate Republican from Ohio, who said on the Senate floor Wednesday he couldn’t vote for START because he was worried about Russia’s sort of aggressive moves in its old neighborhood.

And, today, German Chancellor Merkel made a statement supporting and urging ratification of New START. And they’re hoping to get other statements from other NATO members, maybe even NATO itself, tomorrow. So, the idea is to he at least show other Republicans in the Senate that Senator Kyl’s really an outlier here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, quickly to Afghanistan. This was supposed to be the main topic of this meeting, the leaders discussing this timetable out to 2014.

What is President Obama looking for from the leaders?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, what the U.S. had realized, and General Petraeus made clear to President Obama, is that the July 2011 date that he had set last December for the U.S. beginning to withdraw some troops was being widely interrupted as U.S. pulls out July 2011, and that meant for the Pakistanis and the Taliban and the Afghans.

And what is more, you had Europeans running for the exit. I mean, both the Canadians and the Dutch are in the process of or have withdrawn their combat forces. So, the U.S. realized it really needed to get the whole NATO alliance agreeing on a timetable, so the Europeans would stay involved.

And that involved this two-phase approach, which is they will start handing over some responsibility to the Afghans next spring, district by district, that everyone agrees that everyone will keep participating in some way, whether combat or training, through at least December 2014.

And so President Obama hopes that, if everyone, if it really is a NATO alliance strategy, that — that NATO will — they know members will say to themselves, this is our first out-of-area mission ever since the Cold War. We can’t afford to fail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Margaret, this is — this trip to Portugal is just shortly after the president made a two-week-long trip to Asia, with mixed results. What does the White House want out of this trip?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, they hope that this will be — it’s a short trip, 30 hours here on the ground, but that it will be a victory lap.

As you said, in Asia, he missed getting a South Korean trade deal, got beat up at the G20. The hope is here to demonstrate that President Obama has not been so weakened by the election results that he is weakened overseas. So, today, after briefing us, for example, on the missile defense agreement, one White House aide said, “Do you guys need any synonyms for the word win?”

JUDY WOODRUFF: I guess that tells the story. Margaret, thanks.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, tells the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will talk to you on — we will talk to you on Monday to see what happened over the weekend.

MARGARET WARNER: Great, Judy. Thanks.