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.
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.
Stimulus bill produces lots of winners and losers By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Barack Obama is scoring a monster victory three weeks into his presidency with the economic stimulus deal. But he's taken some hits along the way and ultimately will be judged on whether he is able to cure an economy that is mired in recession.
As the stimulus plan works its way toward Obama's desk, plenty of political winners and losers are emerging: Education made out; governors' budgets, not so much. Alternative energy companies are poised to fare well, but defense contractors likely won't reap any benefit.
Taxpayers, reeling from rising unemployment and footing the bill for much of the $790 billion package, could win or lose: It depends on whether the investments - and tax cuts aimed at the middle class - end up paying off. The economy, too, could come out on top or on bottom: It's not certain that the plan is enough to reverse the slide that started more than a year ago.
-Obama. The new Democratic president used his popularity and bully pulpit to get the notoriously sluggish Congress to work through the huge package in relatively short order. But it wasn't all smooth sailing, and Obama knows that his political fate is tied to his ability to reverse the severe economic conditions that he inherited from former President George W. Bush.
-Senate moderates, specifically Susan Collins, R-Maine., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb. They helped broker a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the White House that ultimately cut some $100 billion from the package and paved the way for final passage. Collins, in particular, showed her power in a Senate where Democrats lack a filibuster-proof majority; she was able to make the White House and the Democratic majority bow to her demands.
-Education. The measure includes a $25 billion downpayment on K-12 school reforms and $47 billion to prevent cuts in state aid to school districts.
-The jobless and the poor. Unemployment benefits will be temporarily extended and increased. Food stamps will be boosted. Billions of dollars will flow for job training and temporary welfare payments.
-The alternative energy industry. The package allots $50 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.
-House Republicans. Adrift after back-to-back electoral losses, they found their voice against a Democratic speaker and an expanded majority. They held to the GOP's cornerstone of fiscal conservatism as they led the effort to define the package as too costly and too quick. As the economy turns around, however, they run the risk of being cast as modern-day Herbert Hoovers who wanted to do nothing.
-Big government. The package melds an unprecedented level of new spending and tax cuts, and it marks an extraordinary intervention of government into people's lives.
-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He was key to brokering a final deal in line with a White House-imposed deadline of mid-February. He delivered for the White House but also may have compromised some of the Senate's independence in the process.
-House Minority Leader John Boehner. He strengthened his hold on his job, keeping his rank-and-file united against the House version.
-General Motors Corp. The struggling automaker got a tax break worth $3.2 billion that preserves its ability to claim refunds against taxes paid when times were good.
-Large hospices. They won a reprieve - worth about $134 million - from cuts in what Medicare pays them to care for dying patients.
-Obama. He spent weeks preaching bipartisanship and spending his political capital but reverted to combative, buck-stops-here talk when Republicans rebelled at the cost and scope of the plan. With the economic downturn worsening on his watch, Obama runs the risk of facing the ultimate political punishment if doesn't turn around - a one-term presidency.
-Bipartisanship. So much for all that talk. Obama wanted broad support from members of both political parties. But House Democrats shut out the GOP as the original bill was written, and no House Republicans voted for the measure. Only three Republicans voted with Democrats in the Senate. A largely party line vote was expected on final passage.
-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She struggled to control liberals who demanded more spending, and didn't include Republicans in the process from the start, undercutting Obama's calls for bipartisanship. Her strained relationship with Reid also may have worsened.
-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He failed to keep his members in line and was eclipsed by three members of his caucus - Collins, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. They negotiated with the Democrats and ultimately sided with them.
-Homebuilders. They saw a $39 billion tax break that would have provided a $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers scaled back substantially.
-Governors. They'll get just $8 billion to defray budget cuts as they face declining revenues and rising demand for services. On the bright side, they pushed for massive spending on roads, bridges and other construction projects to bring jobs - and got $46 billion.
-The nuclear energy industry. It had lobbied hard for $50 billion worth of federal loan guarantees for technologies that use little or no carbon - but saw it stripped from the package. Count environmental groups and the conservative Taxpayers for Common Sense as the victors here.
-The defense industry. There's no significant money for weapons systems, though lawmakers approved several billion for construction at military facilities.
-Liberals. They yielded to calls from conservatives for deeper tax cuts and less spending.
-Large and medium-sized businesses, including manufacturers. They were cut out of more than $18 billion in tax breaks that would have expanded their ability to use current losses to get refunds against taxes paid when they were making large profits.
Associated Press writers Matt Yancey, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Alan Fram and Steve Manning contributed to this report.
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