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Obama Shelves Bush-era Plan for Missile Defense Shield

September 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The White House said Thursday that the U.S. will scrap a European missile shield proposed by the Bush administration to thwart the threat of an attack from Iran. Analysts weigh in on the decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama today scrapped the Bush administration’s plan for a missile shield in Eastern Europe. He said there is still a threat from Iran, but the system as designed does not address it.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our lead story report.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: The announcement came this morning from President Obama at the White House.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Bush was right that Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat. This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems, and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Gates said new intelligence showed Iran is developing short- and medium-range missiles faster than expected, so the defense system has to change, as well.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies. On the other hand, our intelligence assessment also now assesses that the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006.

SPENCER MICHELS: Under the original system, Poland had agreed to host 10 missile interceptors, and a radar installation would be based in the Czech Republic. The system was designed to shoot down incoming long-range missiles, but was never built.

Under the new plan, existing missile interceptors, which are missiles themselves, would be deployed on U.S. ships off Southern Europe, starting in 2011, followed in later years with additional ground-based missiles.

The Bush plan had led to strained U.S. relations with the Russians, who feared the system was aimed at them. But both President Obama and Secretary Gates insisted today Russia’s opposition was not a major factor in this decision.

BARACK OBAMA: We’ve also repeatedly made clear to Russia that its concerns about our previous missile defense programs were entirely unfounded.

ROBERT GATES: The decisions on this were driven, I would say, almost exclusively by the changed intelligence assessment and the enhanced technology. It really was a zero-based look at both the threat and our capability to deal with it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The U.S. decision drew praise from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, president, Russia (through translator): We appreciate this responsible move by the U.S. president toward realizing our agreement. I am ready to continue the dialogue.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Poland will still be secure. The Czech prime minister, Jan Fischer, said the announcement will not change relations with the U.S.

But in the U.S. Congress, which has to fund any missile defense system, the announcement drew immediate and sharply opposing views.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., Speaker of the House: I think this is brilliant. The fact that they have re-evaluated the threat, that they have taken into consideration what the technology, advanced technologies are now, what this means to our relationship in NATO and what this means in our bilateral relationship with Russia is very, very important.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader: This ill-advised decision does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our European allies. I think 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.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Iran, a senior government source said the ongoing confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program could ease as a result of today’s U.S. decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: And now, more contrasting views on today’s development from two men with extensive experience dealing with Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Richard Burt served as ambassador to Germany, chief arms negotiator, and assistant secretary of state for European affairs during the Reagan administration. He’s now with the business consulting firm and president of Global Zero, a nuclear arms control movement.

David Kramer was assistant secretary of state for democracy, for human rights and labor, and deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs during the last Bush administration. He’s now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

And welcome to you both. David Kramer, beginning with you, your immediate reaction to this move by President Obama?

Russian pressure

David Kramer
Former State Department Official
I think it reflects a caving to Russian pressure. I think it also is a betrayal of the governments in Poland and the Czech Republic.

DAVID KRAMER, senior fellow, German Marshall Fund: As a supporter of what President Bush had envisioned with Poland and the Czech Republic, I'm very disappointed by today's decision by the president. I think it reflects a caving to Russian pressure. I think it also is a betrayal of the governments in Poland and the Czech Republic.

I support adding or enhancing efforts to deal with different kinds of threats that may emerge from Iran, but I also think it's a major mistake not to take into account the possible long-range threats that the missile system and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic respectively would have been dealing with.

MARGARET WARNER: Caving to Russian pressure?

RICHARD BURT, president, Global Zero: Well, I don't think it's caving to Russian pressure. And I agree with the statements that the president and the secretary of defense made today, that I think it was taken mainly on military and technical grounds.

I think they've come up with an approach that is more, I think, focused on the emerging Iranian threat and not a desire to build a global ballistic missile shield, which I don't think the technology is in place to do that and I don't think it strategically makes sense.

There will be some benefits. I think those benefits will be as large within the NATO alliance as they are in terms of facilitating a dialogue with the Russians.

The fact of the matter is, is this was never a popular decision with the NATO allies. It was originally agreed with Poland and the Czech Republic behind the backs of some of our major allies. I think it will facilitate more unity on this issue within the alliance, and it will also facilitate, I think, progress with the Russians.

Nature of the Iranian threat

Richard Burt
Former State Department Official
It would be wonderful if we could fund every possible defense project and protect against every conceivable risk. But the fact of the matter is...I'm not sure the Iranians will ever deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we continue more on the political and geopolitical front, let's deal a little more with the merits of what Secretary Gates said. I mean, his point was, our assessment has changed and the nature of the threat has changed, and the old system was not going to address the short-range and medium-range ballistic missile threat, and they're going to be able to get these first missile interceptors out there by 2011 on ships.

DAVID KRAMER: I'm supportive of getting missiles or interceptors out to deal with the short-range threat. But I sure hope that this new analysis and assessment that is coming from the intel community is right, because it would be a major mistake if we got this wrong.

I would much prefer it to err on the side of caution, and by that I mean having missile systems in place to deal with a long-range threat that may materialize.

Keep in mind, when in the Bush administration they were envisioning this plan, it wasn't to deal with a threat that was going to come from Iran tomorrow or the next day or even next year. It was to be ready for something that would come along by 2015 or so, a long-range threat.

MARGARET WARNER: But why is that advisable or preferable to the approach that the Obama administration is taking, which is sort of the other way around, let's deal with the short-term threat with technology we've got now and it may be robust enough down the road to deal with the long-range threat?

DAVID KRAMER: What I would like to see is a complementary system where we would deal with any short- or intermediate-range threats. So I'm supportive of what the administration announced today in that respect. But I think we have to simultaneously proceed with the Poles and the Czechs on what we had in mind last year.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that? Why not keep them both going, both these tracks?

RICHARD BURT: Well, it would be wonderful if we could fund every possible defense project and protect against every conceivable risk. But the fact of the matter is and we've just heard the date, 2015 I'm not sure the Iranians will ever deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles.

We know that they're developing and beginning the process of deploying short- and medium-range systems. Those are clearly a threat to our...

MARGARET WARNER: Which already have part of Southern Europe and Turkey in range.

RICHARD BURT: Right. And they threaten our allies in the gulf and the Middle East. And we have to recognize that, even though we're not sure whether the Iranians even plan to deploy nuclear weapons yet. We do need to take prudent steps to do that.

And we have been discussing with the Europeans 10 or 15 years now approaches to theater ballistic missile defense which make a lot of sense. But to deploy a system where there are real technical doubts whether it would actually even work and when large portions of the defense establishment, including the Joint Staff and the civilian defense managers, doubted the need for this system, to rush ahead with this system is simply a waste of money, and it's not prudent when there are such high political costs.

You know, one thing that's important to remember about the Czechs and the Poles in particular is their parliaments hadn't even ratified this agreement. And this was pointed out today by Secretary Gates, when he said there's a delay in this process because we can't get the parliaments in these two countries to even go along with this idea.

The reaction in Moscow

David Kramer
Former State Department Official
I think there are huge smiles in Moscow today and tomorrow. I think the Russians will view this as a major victory.

MARGARET WARNER: So what impact -- you've both dealt with the Russians, the Soviets in your day. What impact do you think this will have on Russia?

DAVID KRAMER: I think there are huge smiles in Moscow today and tomorrow. I think the Russians will view this as a major victory. They have been on a relentless campaign attacking and criticizing the plans for Poland and the Czech Republic. They have linked it to conclusion of a post-START arms control agreement and basically said such an agreement wouldn't occur if we went ahead with the missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic.

I mean, I think lesson they will take away from this is that loud complaining and even bully tactics, such as threatening Iskander missiles against Poland and the Czech Republic, work. And I think that's a dangerous risk.

RICHARD BURT: I don't necessarily agree with this. I don't think the Russians will necessarily see this as a concession. I think what they...


RICHARD BURT: I think, in fact, as the Russian foreign minister has said, he thought this was a bad decision in the first place. And there, in fact, I agree.

I think that it could facilitate greater progress in arms reductions, which is probably a good thing. It's in our interest as much as the Russians. It will maybe make it easier to get lower levels of offensive nuclear weapons deployed by both sides.

But I don't think that the Obama administration believes -- and certainly I don't believe -- that this has sort of unlocked the door, it's been a preemptive concession to get an agreement.

It was not -- the key point here, Margaret, is I don't think this decision was taken because the Russians complained. This decision was taken because it didn't make -- it wasn't good defense policy, and it wasn't good alliance management policy.

Iran's weapons program

Richard Burt
Former State Department Official
I think their nuclear program is largely designed to accentuate their standing in the region, to show that they're an advanced technological country.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the tradeoffs that had been discussed early on -- and President Obama has even alluded to this -- was a tradeoff between the U.S. perhaps changing its plans on missile defense and the Russians being more willing to step up the pressure on Iran, if necessary, over its nuclear program. Now, how do you think this move affects that whole calculation, both by the Russians and the Iranians?

DAVID KRAMER: The Russians have flatly rejected this kind of linkage, and they have said even very recently when the talk of new sanctions were being considered against Iran for the continued defiance in the U.N. Security Council that they would not go along with further sanctions.

I don't think the decision today is going to produce the Russians in a more positive direction inclined with our position. I think it's wishful thinking to anticipate that a decision like today's is going to lead the Russians more in sync with our thinking.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think?

RICHARD BURT: I don't disagree with that, and I don't think that was guiding this decision. I don't think anybody saw a tradeoff here, that somehow we're going to get the Russians on our side vis-a-vis Iran.


RICHARD BURT: But, that said, I think we exaggerate the ability of the Russians to deliver the Iranians in the first place.

DAVID KRAMER: I agree with that.

RICHARD BURT: I think, in the final analysis, it's going to depend, as the administration has said, on the ability of the United States to get into a constructive dialogue with the Iranians. And it's not clear to me we can do that right now with the Iranians.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you both, very briefly, think this will be read in Tehran?

DAVID KRAMER: I think, particularly ahead of a meeting coming up on October 1st, they will view this positively. I think this is a mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: Positively, even though there's now more of a defense -- going to be more of a defense against the technology they've got?

DAVID KRAMER: The way this is being portrayed in most media reports are that the administration is abandoning the missile defense plans of the Bush administration.

RICHARD BURT: I don't see it having a large impact on the Iranians. I think their nuclear program is largely designed to accentuate their standing in the region, to show that they're an advanced technological country.

And I want to repeat: I don't think they've made the decision yet on whether to actually deploy a nuclear weapon versus having an uranium enrichment capability and the ability at some future point to maybe acquire nuclear weapons.

DAVID KRAMER: I just hope we don't find out too late.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I hope we don't, too. Rick Burt and David Kramer, thank you both.