WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's go-slow approach to missile defenses in Europe is stirring speculation that he is planning either to deep-freeze the costly project he inherited from the Bush administration or use it as a bargaining chip in broader security talks with Russia.
It's a defense and diplomacy issue with important implications for American policy toward Europe, whose territory the anti-missile system would be meant to protect. And it complicates relations with Russia, which fiercely opposes the missile project, and Iran, whose development of long-range missiles is at the root of the U.S. rationale for pursuing the plan.
Obama has not said how he intends to proceed, stressing only that the system has to be cost-effective and proven and should not divert resources from other national security priorities. But leading defense and foreign policy experts are already taking Obama's constant repetition of those caveats as signals that he is not eager to plow ahead with the Europe leg of the Bush antimissile plan.
"I think it's on the back burner," said James F. Collins, director of Russia studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former ambassador to Moscow. He believes the administration is considering how the issue might fit in a broader set of arms and other negotiations with Moscow.
The Bush plan called for installing 10 silo-based missiles in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic at a cost of $4.5 billion, with a 2013 target date for having the system up and running. Construction has not yet begun at either site. Together they would provide a means of shooting down a small number of long-range missiles launched from the Middle East by intercepting them in flight outside the Earth's atmosphere — a so-called "hit-to-kill" technology that critics say needs more rigorous testing.
Senior Obama aides have suggested the planned antimissile system will be included in a lengthy review this year of defense policy and programs.
"I read the Obama and other statements more or less as tentative about this system in the sense that they aren't going to put huge investment in it unless they can figure out it's going to work," Collins said.
Dean Wilkening, a physicist and defense expert at Stanford University, said a money crunch caused by the economic crisis may be the most compelling reason for the Obama administration to lean against the European project. "They may opt to delay the site just because" of the cost and more urgent spending needs, Wilkening said.
Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said Friday that Poland expects the United States to carry through with general promises of stronger military cooperation with Warsaw, even if the missile defense base doesn't work out.
"Poland is in favor of the United States remaining a European superpower," Sikorski said in a speech to Poland's Parliament. He said that Warsaw still is ready to do its part in hosting the missile interceptors, but acknowledged the new uncertainty.
"Regardless of what kind of decision the U.S. will take," he said, "we expect that the declaration on strategic cooperation will be fulfilled."
The Bush administration saw missile defense in Europe as a vital link in a broader U.S. effort to deter the use of long-range ballistic missiles by countries like North Korea and to discourage their development by nations like Iran. The European site would be linked to existing missile defense sites in Alaska and California, which the Pentagon says are capable of defending against a small-scale North Korean attack.
Robert Gates, the holdover Pentagon chief, has argued strongly for working out a deal with the Russians that would enable the project to go forward. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Gates and his new boss, Obama, have yet to discuss the issue in depth.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton share the view that if Iran were persuaded to give up its nuclear ambitions and not develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, that would "obviate much of the need" for the European sites, Morrell said.
Clinton told reporters this week that money was not the overriding issue on missile defense. She said it was mainly a matter of resolving technical issues, while stressing that Iran's behavior could be a deciding factor.
"If we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons, you know, then we will reconsider where we stand," she said. "But we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any behavior change."
Clinton did not mention Russia's strong objections to the missile plan, but Moscow has been a central figure in the debate from the beginning. Although the Russians have objected on grounds that the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic pose a strategic threat, many in the United States believe the real problem is a Russian conviction that the bases are part of a broader effort by the U.S. to encroach on what the Russians consider their sphere of influence — territories that once were part of the Soviet Union.
John Rood, who was the State Department's chief arms control official for the final year and a half of the Bush administration, said in an interview that he would advise against bargaining away the European missile plan.
"Such a step would be ineffective and send a worrying signal to U.S. allies in Europe, who would question whether the U.S. lacked resolve and was recognizing a Russian sphere of influence in central Europe, which would be a strategic error," Rood said.
All agree there is currently no Iranian missile that threatens wider Europe; the disagreement is over projections of when Iran may have such a capability and how Europe, the U.S. and Russia should deal with it in the meantime.