LONDON— The White House's plan to expand the U.S. ballistic missile defense shield to Europe is running into difficulties as the clock ticks down on George W. Bush's presidency. European governments have started a time-honored exercise in political expediency: distancing themselves from what is increasingly seen as a lame-duck U.S. administration. And the antimissile system could be the main casualty of that diplomatic dance—at least in the short term.
Based in Alaska and California, the system is designed to shoot down a nuclear ballistic missile fired by a rogue nation, ostensibly North Korea. But the White House wants to extend it to Europe by 2012 to counter any possible threat from Iran. It wants to sink 10 interceptor missile silos into Polish soil and base a radar station in the Czech Republic. The two countries have been among the European Union's most ardent supporters of the United States and the missile shield. But that support is waning. "The Poles are clearly wary of a controversial policy that may not survive the Bush administration," says Robin Shepherd, a European policy analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
If the next U.S. president is a Democrat who decides to pull the plug on the antimissile system, Poland could find itself having incurred the wrath of Russia and having nothing to show for it. The notion of western missiles deployed on its doorstep has enraged Russia, which worries they could target its ICBMs. It's threatened to re-aim its aging, but still potent, nuclear arsenal at Europe. The Poles—and some other E.U. members, including Germany and France—may also be questioning the shield's necessity. "They're asking if the threat is as big as it once appeared," says Christopher Hill, a foreign policy expert at the University of Cambridge. Those doubts gained traction with the December release of the National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iran is years away from having nuclear weapons.
Steering the U-turn is Donald Tusk, the center-right Polish prime minister elected in October. His attitude toward the shield is clearly less enthusiastic than was his predecessor's. Tusk recently told an interviewer that Poland "definitely shouldn't hurry on the missile defense issue." And at a joint news conference last week with Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, Tusk said the system's completion "is not a race against time."
Poland's foot-dragging will almost certainly influence the Czech government, which had been eager to host the radar base. But that policy hasn't played well among the Czechs themselves. A recent poll there found 70 percent of Czechs oppose the plan.
In return for taking the missiles, Poland is asking the United States for security guarantees and installation of a short-range missile defense system, too. The United States hasn't ruled out accepting those conditions. Indeed, Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told a radio interviewer that he thought a breakthrough may be reached when Bush and Tusk meet next month in Washington. It's possible they'll decide to base the missiles under the aegis of NATO to give Poland security assurances.
But Shepherd says it's uncertain how well that solution will go down with other alliance members. He thinks Warsaw—which isn't eager to anger Moscow, especially since it is dependent upon Russian energy—still wants to delay a final decision until a new administration is in power.
Europe isn't likely to put the brakes on coordinating policy with the Bush White House in areas that continue to require immediate attention, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Middle East, and climate change. "But any new initiatives by the Bush administration will be taken less seriously," Shepherd says. Of course, erecting a missile defense shield in Europe is hardly a new initiative. It's just one that some European leaders no longer consider all that urgent.