Easing the U.S. push for a European missile defense system, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told NATO allies Thursday that the Obama administration was reviewing plans for the controversial program and hoped to reopen talks with Moscow, which is bitterly opposed to the project.
Gates, echoing views of other top administration officials, said the U.S. would consider whether the system was affordable and technologically feasible as plans move forward. Such caveats were uncommon under President Bush.
“The fact is, with the economic crisis, Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration has not yet reviewed where it is on a whole range of issues, including relationships with allies, the missile defense program, the relationship with the Russians,” Gates said in a round table with reporters while attending a conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “These things are all, in many respects, tied together.”
Gates’ comments reflected a shift away from Bush administration policy on an issue that has inflamed U.S.-Russian ties and added to American image problems abroad.
Vice President Joe Biden addressed the issue Feb. 7 at a security conference in Munich, Germany, vowing consultation with NATO and Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that the administration might reconsider the system if convinced that Iran posed no threat.
The Russians have been hostile to the missile defense program, dismissing U.S. insistence that the system is designed to stop relatively simple Iranian missiles and would be overwhelmed by Moscow’s far more sophisticated arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Under Bush, Gates was an advocate of the system and worked to overcome Moscow’s opposition. But Russia remained distrustful of U.S. motives and was especially opposed to plans for an interceptor-missile base in Poland. The proposal also calls for a radar base in the Czech Republic.
Gates, the Obama administration’s lone holdover from the Bush Cabinet, said he wanted to pursue missile defense not only in partnership with NATO, but also with Russia.
“We are also very interested in continuing to pursue our efforts to persuade the Russians to partner with us in this endeavor,” Gates said.
Gates, like Clinton, also said that Russia could affect U.S. thinking by helping eliminate future Iranian threats.
President Obama has taken a go-slow approach to missile defense.
Gates, in Krakow for a NATO defense ministers meeting, said he told his Polish counterpart that the decisions on how to proceed with missile defense would await the administration’s review.
In an interview with Polish television, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said Poland would have to wait for the results, but he added that he intended to push the U.S. to live up to its agreements.
“What’s left for us to do: to underline and remind people that Poland accepted the American proposal, that last year a deal was signed . . . and that the agreement binds both sides, and I stressed that during today’s talks,” Klich said.
Gates also adopted Biden’s view that the U.S. needs to “reset” relations with Russia.
“I am hopeful that with a new start, there may be some opportunities with the Russians that we can pursue,” Gates said earlier in his trip.
He also has expressed frustration with Moscow recently. Before leaving for Poland, Gates said Russia was offering to help supply NATO troops in Afghanistan at the same time it was pushing Kyrgyzstan to end U.S. use of the Manas air base, a key supply point.
“I think that the Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas,” Gates said.
The Kyrgyzstan parliament voted 78 to 1 on Thursday to terminate the U.S. lease on the base. Nonetheless, Gates said the U.S. still hoped to negotiate with the Kyrgyzstan government to remain, and was willing to pay more in rent.
“We are prepared to look at the fees and see if there is justification for a somewhat larger payment,” Gates said. “But we’re not going to be ridiculous about it.”
The base is used to transfer 500 tons of supplies into Afghanistan every month.