The Obama administration reached an agreement Wednesday for Poland to take part in its revised missile defense shield program, a surprising turnabout after the U.S. government junked an ambitious defense program based in the region that was favored by President George W. Bush.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk emerged from a lengthy private discussion to announce that Poland’s participation in the missile program was, essentially, back on though in a new format that involves delivering a smaller number of defensive weapons in 2018.
Mr. Tusk said through a translator that he considered the revised proposal “a very interesting idea,” adding, “We are ready to participate in this project.”
Warsaw’s acceptance was considered critical to President Obama’s revised defense plan, which calls for an existing system of interceptors to be placed on U.S. ships in the Mediterranean by 2011 and in sites in Eastern Europe starting in 2015.
The hastily arranged vice-presidential trip, which also will include stops in Romania and the Czech Republic this week, was also intended to soothe relations and reassure the fledgling NATO members that the missile program would not be scrapped and that the U.S. policy shift should not be viewed as a snub or a weakening of American security commitments in the region.
• Biden rejects Russian dominance in border states
Mr. Biden had his work cut out for him. Poland and other nations in the region already were feeling uneasy about recent bilateral discussions between the United States and Russia. Then Mr. Obama, with no warning, announced the shift in missile policy on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland, which remains deeply sensitive about its history with the major powers on its borders.
Placing defensive weapons in Poland and radar systems in the Czech Republic had been pushed aggressively by Bush administration, despite strong objections from Russia, which argued that the system could in time undermine Moscow’s own nuclear arsenal deterrent. Polish officials came to welcome the idea, less for the military value of the weapons than for the added security of having an American military presence within their borders.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Mr. Obama’s change of direction from the Bush administration in prepared remarks for an address Wednesday evening at the Center for Security Policy.
“Most anyone who is given responsibility in matters of national security quickly comes to appreciate the commitments and structures put in place by others who came before,” said Mr. Cheney, adding that whatever course a new administration follows “the essential thing is always to keep commitments and to leave no doubts about the credibility of your countrys word.”
He said Mr. Obamas cancellation of the agreements with the Polish and Czech governments was a serious blow to millions of Europeans, who have gained opportunities and security that the United States offered.
“These are faithful friends and NATO allies, and they deserve better. “Our friends throughout the world are watching and wondering whether America will abandon them as well,” he said.
Gamely wading into the sticky diplomatic situation, Mr. Biden poured on the charm at his meeting with Polish President Lech Kaczynski that ran more than 30 minutes over its scheduled length.
“When two old friends get together, they tend to talk,” a smiling Mr. Biden said afterward.
Mr. Kaczynski described the conversation as “a source of optimism to me.”
While “there are some difficulties” still to discuss regarding missile defense, “we hope they will be resolved,” he said.
In joint remarks with the prime minister, Mr. Biden tried to convey America’s resolute support for the security of Poland.
Noting NATO’s collective security pledge, Mr. Biden said, “An attack on one is an attack on all. And this strategic assurance is absolute. Absolute, Mr. Prime Minister.”
Toby Gati, a senior adviser on Russia and Eurasia in the Clinton White House, said the outcome of the visit was favorable for the Poles.
“The Poles are going to do just fine under the new missile defense plans,” she said. “They were smart not to make a fuss and fight the Obama administration, but instead to try to figure out ways to enhance their security with the ‘new guys in charge.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, said Mr. Obama’s modified missile defense plan “is more realistic and doesn’t raise unnecessary issues with the Russians.”
While he faulted the Obama administration for “poor staff work” in timing the announcement — Sept. 17 was the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland during World War II — he said the “dispute is blowing over and Biden’s trip is very reassuring.”
Mrs. Gati said that the Kremlin may end up having “buyer’s remorse” over the U.S. policy shift.
“Yes, they got rid of the system Bush put forward, which they no doubt consider a political victory, but from the point of view of a U.S. ‘presence’ and a possible threat to Russia as the pieces of the system are integrated, this system may be of much greater concern,” Mrs. Gati said. “Unless, of course, we and the Russians do eventually cooperate on missile defense.”
As much as the visit was intended to look forward, Mr. Biden did make a brief detour to lay a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, a stone edifice erected in 1948 in the memory of the Jews who rose up against the Nazis and those who were marched off to death.
In a light drizzle under an overcast sky, Mr. Biden quietly greeted two local rabbis, one who stood with a cane, in a corner of the cobblestone square where the monument stands. In a dark suit and no overcoat, he then walked with a Polish military officer to the center of the square.
Surrounded by 14 Polish soldiers, most holding raised rifles, Mr. Biden and his escort stood frozen as a bugle sounded. A snare drum snapped off a slow march, and the two took deliberate steps toward the 20-foot monument, which depicts resistance fighters gripping hand grenades.
Polish soldiers placed a wreath of crimson roses at the base. A sash across the wreath read, “In memory of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.” The bugler played taps as Mr. Biden held his hand over his heart. As he walked quietly away, a group of 10 Jewish schoolgirls sang an Israeli folk song. The vice president flashed a quick smile and waved at the schoolchildren before returning to the motorcade.
• Jon Ward contributed to this report in Washington.