- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009


President Obama on Thursday said he is scrapping current plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic that was intended to protect against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, but said he is doing so in order to deploy a more flexible system, possibly in those same countries, that his administration said is an “enhancement.”

Mr. Obama, in a statement at the White House, said that his “new approach” will “best address the threat posed by Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile defense program.”

He and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates emphasized that the new system was based on a determination that the Iranian threat has shifted, for now, away from long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) delivery systems for potential nuclear weapons and toward short- and medium-range missiles.

Mr. Gates said in a Pentagon press conference Thursday that a new intelligence assessment shows that short- and medium-range missiles from Iran are “a more immediate threat” and that work on these weapons was “developing more rapidly than previously projected.”

“While the original system was predicated on Iran’s ability to build a capable ICBM program, intelligence has shown they are much more fixated on developing short- and midrange missiles,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in an interview. “So we are adjusting our system accordingly. Just as the threat has developed, so has the technology.”

Mr. Gates lashed out at those who were framing the decision as an abandonment of missile defense writ large.

“Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,” Mr. Gates said.

He said Washington is already in talks with Poland and the Czech Republic over the possibility of positioning the new missile defense system in their countries, and said the response from the two governments to a Pentagon official there Thursday had been so far “positive.”

Nonetheless, the move will be seen by many as a concession to the Russians, who have been angered by the program since President George W. Bush began it at the start of his administration. The Obama administration has signaled, since taking office, that it was not enthusiastic about the plan.

Press reports out of Russia indicated that the Kremlin was claiming the decision as a victory. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that he expected the White House to back off the missile defense plan and said that the Kremlin would not do anything in return for what they viewed as simply correcting a past mistake.

The missile defense system and a Bush-backed plan to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include former Soviet bloc nations were thought to have been primary drivers behind Russia’s invasion of Georgia, a former bloc country, in August 2008.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Mr. Obama for the presidency and has long been a critic of the current Russian leadership, called the administration’s decision “seriously misguided.”

“This decision calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe,” Mr. McCain said.

He said the move would embolden the Kremlin “at a time when Eastern European nations are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.”

Senate Minority Whip John Kyl, Arizona Republican, called the administration’s decision “dangerous and shortsighted.”

“This will be a bitter disappointment, indeed, even a warning to the people of Eastern Europe,” Mr. Kyl said, adding that Washington had “turned its back” on allies that have committed troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Kyl and others charged that the administration is making a concession to Moscow days before Mr. Obama will engage in high-level talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the United Nations in New York on the topic of reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer told reporters in Prague on Thursday that Mr. Obama had called to tell him that he was canceling plans to place a radar system in his country, which would have been paired with 10 interceptor missile sites in Poland.

Both the Czech and Polish governments spent considerable political capital over the past few years to get approval for the plan from their legislative bodies.

But Mr. Morrell rejected charges that the move was “abandoning Europe.”

“That’s just not accurate. It’s just a different kind of system,” he said.

Estimates vary on how far away Iran might be from having the ability to make nuclear weapons, but even with that capability, miniaturizing the weapon to put it on an ICBM is one of the most complicated parts of the process.

An administration official characterized the system as it has been proposed as “two fixed, somewhat vulnerable points.”

Pentagon correspondent Sara A. Carter contributed to this article.

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