By Sam Youngman - 09/17/09 03:21 PM EDT
President Barack Obama announced Thursday the cancellation of the Eastern Europe Bush-era missile defense shield in favor of a more “proven and cost-effective” system.
The decision will likely appease Moscow, which had long opposed the program, but it angered congressional Republicans, who supported the plan.
Obama said the U.S. will no longer pursue those plans in favor of a redesigned defense system that would be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.
The president said he made the decision with unanimous agreement from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the joint chiefs of staff. Obama also said he had spoken with the prime ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic before making the announcement.
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the BBC that the decision was a breakthrough for Washington-Moscow relations. "It's like having a decomposing corpse in your flat and then the undertaker comes and takes it away," Rogozin said. "This means we're getting rid of one of those niggling problems which prevented us from doing the real work."
Republicans accused the White House of abandoning commitments to European allies and caving into Russian demands.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s 2008 opponent, called the decision “seriously misguided.”
“I am disappointed with the administration’s decision to cancel plans to develop missile defenses in Eastern Europe,” McCain said in a statement. “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.”
Reaction was swift in Eastern Europe, with former Polish President Lech Walesa saying "we should reconsider our approach to the U.S." And former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who negotiated the defense system with the Bush administration, saw the decision as a threat to the region. "It puts us in a position that we in Central Europe have known for the
last 100 years: We're not anchored by a strong security partner, a
strong ally," Topolanek said.
But Obama insisted his new policy will ensure "stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies."
And he reiterated the U.S. adherence to NATO Article V that "an attack on one is an attack on all."
The Eastern European defense system was championed by former President George W. Bush and has been a source of tension between Russia and the U.S. Then-Russian President Vladmir Putin was a chief opponent of the idea, insisting at the time that the program was little more than regional politicking too close to his state's borders.
Pentagon officials said the decision "had nothing to do with Russia.”
Obama said he welcomes Russia's cooperation in eliminating the threat posed by Iran's missile programs, and he reiterated to Moscow that the purpose of any U.S. missile system in Europe is to defend against threats from Iran.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was also critical of the decision. He noted that since House Democrats took control, they have cut the missile defense budget by $1.2 billion.
“Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe," Boehner said Thursday morning. "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 most important defenses against Iran off the table."
Tony Romm contributed to this article.