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How much did the Czechs and Poles really want the shield?

Somewhat lost in the discussion of whether the United States is betraying its Central European allies by scrapping the planned missile shield, is just how difficult it was to get Poland and the Czech Republic to sign on to the project in the first place.

Around 70 percent of Czechs opposed the idea of hosting the radar system for the missile shield and the final treaty faced strong opposition in parliament. The Polish public was more supportive of the idea, but their government held out for months on agreeing to host the missile interceptors, only signing on after the Bush administration agreed to fund an extensive military modernization program.

Back in February, when today's news began to look like a foregone conclusion, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski acknowleged as much: 

“What we would like to be honored is what went along with” the missile-defense system, [Radoslaw] Sikorski, 46, said in an interview yesterday during a visit to Washington that included a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia.”  

Hopefully the Obama administration will acknowledge this political price and continue (or even expand) defense assistance to both the Czech Republic and Poland. But despite the grumbling in Warsaw and Prague today, the diplomatic damage to the U.S in these countries may not be all that significant. 

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Is Obama really handing Putin a victory?

I asked George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the head of its nonproliferation program, to weigh in on the news, reported last night on The Cable and in this morning's Wall Street Journal, that the Obama administration is pulling back on U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.

There have been signs for months that Obama would do exactly this, but it looks like the administration didn't expect the news to break last night, as officials have seemed unprepared to manage this story in a way that they'd like. (Certainly, the Poles and Czechs must feel they've been treated rudely here.) Already, Drudge is declaring it a "Putin victory" and rounding up global reactions, mostly critical of the move.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are saying the change is based on a "determination that Iran's long-range missile program hasn't progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals."

In an interview conducted before this latest news broke, the State Department's Ellen O. Tauscher told my colleague Josh Rogin that "What is important is to get the priority of the threat right, current versus emerging."

Here's Perkovich, who thinks it's a long-overdue decision:

Briefly, this is not about kowtowing to Moscow and it is too bad that some will perceive it this way. The proposed system was clearly not well-located to be effective against Iranian missiles. But it was well located to become part of a more ambitious system against Russian missiles. Given that the U.S. intention is to deter or defeat Iranian missiles, canceling this move and planning to develop defenses further to the south is clearly the wise thing to do. The U.S. should not try to develop missile defenses to defeat Russian missiles, because this would only cause Russia to build more and to keep them more ready to be launched rapidly. Russia would fear that the combination of U.S. offensive weapons plus defenses could enable the U.S. to try a disarming first strike against it. Yes, this is a bizarre throwback to the Cold War days, but old habits of thought and practice die hard -- in Moscow and Washington. The administration's decision reduces this risk. It corrects an earlier mistake.

At the same time, however, perceptions matter. So it will be important for the U.S. to reassure Poland and the Czech Republic that the U.S. is wholly committed to their security. There are multiple ways to do this, including military exercises on their territory, etc. The best way would be to encourage Russia to demonstrate a more cooperative and friendly attitude towards these states, which would lessen the sense of threat and the need for the U.S. to reassure its allies against such threats. If Russia chooses not to be more reassuring, especially after this missile defense decision, then it would have no legitimate basis for protesting if the U.S. and NATO take defensive steps to reassure members of the alliance.