Obama seen likely to hedge on missile defense

By: By ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writer
By: By ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Scuttle the planned U.S. missile defense system in Europe. Use the costly Bush administration project as a bargaining chip in broader security talks involving Russia.

Speculation about those possibilities is increasing given President Barack Obama's go-slow approach on the missile shield and recent signs of accord with Moscow.

After two days of talks this week in the Russian capital, the third-ranking U.S. diplomat reported an apparent new willingness from officials to discuss a possible European system that might include Russia.

William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, was in Moscow "to listen to the Russians as well as to explore any new avenues that might be available," department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.

"We've been talking with Russia about missile defense for a period of 10 years and we are heartened that our message is being well-received in Moscow and the Russian government," Duguid said.

The Russian Interfax news agency quoted Burns as saying U.S. officials are "open to the possibility of cooperation, both with Russia and NATO partners, in relation to a new configuration for missile defense which would use the resources that each of us have."

The State Department would not confirm Burns' comments. Bush administration officials tried to mollify Russian concerns about the missile system by raising the possibility of Russian involvement.

In another positive sign, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next month to look for ways of improving cooperation. Solana said they would get together in Geneva after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers early next month.

The missile plan complicates relations with Russia and Iran, whose development of long-range missiles is at the root of the U.S. rationale for pursuing the shield.

Obama has not said how he intends to proceed. So far, he has stressed that the system has to be cost-effective and proven and should not divert resources from other national security priorities. Leading defense and foreign policy experts are already taking Obama's constant repetition of those caveats as hints he is not eager to plow ahead.

"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.

The sites 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. Critics say this technology needs more rigorous testing.

Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, said Friday that Poland expects the United States to carry through with general promises of stronger military cooperation even if the missile defense base doesn't work out.

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 such as North Korea and to discourage their development Iran and others.

"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," Clinton said this week. "But we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any behavior change."

On Friday, Duguid stressed the role the U.S. and Russia could play in countering Iran. "Missile defense is in the interests of all nations in Europe as well as North America to counter a threat from rogue nations, particularly from Iran should Iran develop a nuclear weapon."

The Russians have objected on grounds that the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic pose a strategic threat. Many in the U.S. 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 once were part of the Soviet Union.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Desmond Butler contributed to this report.

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