- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

President Obama on Tuesday sought to reassure Eastern European allies uneasy with signals that the United States may back off of a planned missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, leaving them exposed to domestic political criticism and to threats from an emboldened Russia.

The president said news reports Tuesday detailing a letter he sent to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had mischaracterized his message.

Mr. Obama said he had not proposed a quid pro quo in which the U.S. would abandon its missile-defense plans in exchange for a pledge from Russia, guaranteeing that Iran does not produce a nuclear weapon.

“What I said in the letter is the same thing I’ve said publicly, which is the missile defense that we’ve talked about deploying is directed not toward Russia but Iran,” Mr. Obama said, after a meeting in the Oval Office with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

“Obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, that reduces the pressure or the need for a missile-defense system. In no way does that diminish my commitment to making sure that Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members are fully enjoying the partnership of the alliance and U.S. support with respect to their security,” Mr. Obama said.

In Spain, Mr. Medvedev backed Mr. Obama and knocked down talk of a quid pro quo.

“No, issues haven’t been put that way; it would be unproductive,” Mr. Medvedev said at a news conference Tuesday, which followed talks in Madrid with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The missile-defense system was proposed by President Bush in 2001, and he spent his presidency working to get approval from Poland and the Czech Republic, whose leaders overcame sometimes stiff domestic opposition to the plan. The Bush adminstration said it was needed to guard against Iranian attacks on U.S. allies in Europe.

The Russians, meanwhile, have taken the system as a threat to their security and said they do not think it is meant to protect Europe from Iran.

The Obama administration has said it wants to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations and that it would deploy the 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic only if the technology works and is “cost-effective.”

Polish and Czech politicians have expressed concern about these statements.

But Mr. Obama said Tuesday that “Russia needs to understand our unflagging commitment to the independence and security of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.”

The president added that the United States can cooperate with the Kremlin on common concerns over nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

“My hope is that we can have a constructive relationship where, based on mutual respect and common interests, we can move forward,” said Mr. Obama, who is expected to meet with the Russian president at next month’s Group of 20 economic summit.

The New York Times first reported Mr. Obama’s letter in Tuesday’s editions.

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