Vice President Joe Biden departs today on a three-day trip to central Europe that appears to be aimed at smoothing over relations with U.S. allies there worried by the Obama administration's decision to abandon plans for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The White House announced last month that it was switching gears and instead of the land-based system developed by the Bush administration, would pursue a sea-based system to target short and medium range missiles aimed at Europe.
The announcement caught the central European allies off guard and was met with great concern by the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic.
Biden will visit both those countries, along with Romania, and reassuring Polish and Czech leaders about the change in missile defense plans will likely be high on his agenda.
The Bush administration plan, announced in 2006, would have placed 10 land-based interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The system was intended as a defense against a missile threat from Iran, the Bush administration said.
The shift in policy by the Obama administration was viewed in the region as a gesture toward Russia, which had been very vocal in its opposition to the plan. The Russians believed the system would target its own weapons arsenal, not just that of Iran.
The White House said new intelligence assessments indicate that the threat of short- and medium-range missiles launched from Iran was increasing more quickly than anticipated, but Iran's capability to develop the technology for long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles was still further down the road.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said when the decision was announced last month.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at the time that the new plans would create "a missile defense system that protects a greater geographic area and addresses much more directly the threat that exists in the here and now, rather than something that was technologically a ways off."
Biden's trip is the first visit by a high-level U.S. official since the announcement and he is expected to tout the new plan as better for protecting European security.
"What you'll hear and what the vice president will talk about is a strong commitment to missile defense and to a better system, a more effective system, than the one we had originally proposed," said Tony Blinken, national security advisor to the vice president.
The White House said the changes to the missile defense system would reflect new and more immediate threats.
"It meets a threat that exists as opposed to one that's far off in the future. It's adaptive to future threats. It is based on technology that's already out there and working, and it will cover more of Europe faster than the previous program," Blinken said.
Biden will emphasize to the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic that the plan the Obama administration is pursuing will address the current threats with "technology that we know works and can be deployed faster than the previous system we've been talking about and cover all of NATO," Blinken said.
Did the White House Cave to Pressure from Russia?
Russia viewed the decision by the Obama White House to scrap the Bush plan as a victory, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev applauding the move as show of cooperation, but the White House insisted that Russia's position did not play a role in its decision.
"This is not about Russia," Gibbs said on Sept. 17. "This is about protecting our homeland. It's about protecting the troops that we have deployed overseas that protect our freedom. And it was about ensuring the defense of our allies, our European and NATO allies. That's why this decision was made."
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said.
Blinken said it was clear "from day one" that the Obama administration would seek to improve relations with Russia "but not at the expense of our partners."
"The view we have is that any improvement in U.S.-Russian relations can only improve security in Europe and will redound to the benefit of all our allies," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just returned from Russia, where she reiterated the administration position that Russia and the United States do not pose a threat to one another but that they must work together to counter the legitimate threats from nations like Iran.
"Missile defense is an effort to protect people from the real threats that exist in the world. We do not see a threat between the United States and Russia," Clinton said at Moscow State University on Oct. 14. "There are disagreements from time to time, but we do not see a threat."
Biden to Mark 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
The trip comes just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic ending of the Cold War.
Blinken said that while Biden will mark that historic anniversary, his focus will be more on the future than the past.
"In [Biden's] view, the real validation of 1989 is less in what we took down and more in what we built and continue to build together: strong democracies, strong partnerships that deliver for people in all of our countries and beyond," he said.
"The countries are no longer 'post-communist,' quote, unquote, or 'in transition,' quote, unquote; they are full- fledged members of the NATO alliance and the European Union, with serious and substantial responsibilities," he said.
Biden Travels to Eastern Europe
Biden is also expected to address energy security, climate change and Afghanistan. He will meet with key leadership in all three nations as well as opposition leaders in Romania and the Czech Republic.
The vice president will deliver a speech at Central University in Bucharest where he will focus on U.S. relations with central European nations.
Biden returns to Washington on Friday evening. This is his eighth overseas trip since taking office in January.