President Obama's foreign policy has employed a starkly different tone than George W. Bush's, emphasizing engagement and cooperation rather than go-it-alone confrontation. Even so, analysts of various political stripes hadn't seen many big differences on substance.
Obama's decision Wednesday to scuttle a costly and technically challenged long-range missile-defense system in Europe marks his most significant reversal of a Bush foreign policy priority. It could change the dynamic of what has been an increasingly tense relationship between the U.S. and Russia, which viewed the Bush plans for missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat.
Bush's proposed missile shield, designed to counter intercontinental missiles from Iran, "was very much a signature initiative of theirs, both with respect to Central Europe and with respect to missile defense," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama was careful to portray his decision as a revamping, not an abandonment, of European missile defense. He said he would replace the long-range system Bush envisioned — which had a spotty testing record — with a more reliable defense system aimed at countering what Obama called a more imminent threat from Iran's short-range missiles, which can travel up to 5,000 miles and potentially strike continental Europe.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the new plan still places systems in Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries in the region, though the details are still to be ironed out. The plan calls for a ship-based component and some ground-based interceptors designed to target shorter-range missiles that are less difficult to hit.
"Our new missile-defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said.
The move wasn't unexpected — Obama had ordered a review of the Bush program shortly after taking office, and outside experts had questioned its feasibility even before then. Even so, Obama's announcement drew heated criticism from Republicans, who accused the president of abandoning central European allies and caving in to Russia in a naive bid for diplomacy.
"Short-sighted and harmful to our long-term security interests," complained Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Democrats praised the decision; Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin called it "a sound choice that will improve our security."
Central to the debate over Obama's decision on missile defense is how it will be greeted by Russia, which has been a patron and trading partner of Iran, the Islamic republic that has bedeviled U.S. foreign policy for the last 30 years.
The Iranian regime has an active nuclear energy program, and although U.S. intelligence reports say Iran is not developing an atomic weapon, a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded Thursday that Tehran has the ability to make a bomb. That news, reported by the Associated Press, also said Iran is on its way to developing a missile system able to carry a nuclear warhead.
Obama is trying to negotiate with Iran. But if those talks fail, his administration will seek to impose "crippling sanctions," in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.