LISBON — President Obama won NATO summit agreement Friday to build a missile shield over Europe, an ambitious commitment to protect against Iranian attack while demonstrating the alliance’s continuing relevance — but at the risk of further aggravating Russia.
On another major issue, Obama and the allies are expected to announce plans today to begin handing off security responsibility in Afghanistan to local forces next year and to complete the transition by the end of 2014.
That end date is three years beyond the time that Obama has said he will start withdrawing U.S. troops, and the challenge is to avoid a rush to the exits as public opinion turns more sharply against the war and Afghan President Hamid Karzai pushes for greater control.
While celebrating the missile shield decision, Obama made a renewed pitch for Senate ratification in the United States of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, asserting that Europeans believe rejection of the deal would hurt their security and damage relations with the Russians.
Two key unanswered questions about the missile shield — will it work and can the Europeans afford itâ¢ — were put aside for the moment in the interest of celebrating the agreement as a boost for NATO solidarity.
“It offers a role for all of our allies,” Obama told reporters. “It responds to the threats of our times. It shows our determination to protect our citizens from the threat of ballistic missiles.”
The president did not mention Iran by name, acceding to the wishes of NATO member Turkey, which had threatened to block the deal if its neighbor was singled out.
Under the arrangement, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars planned for Europe — to include interceptors in Romania and Poland and possibly a radar in Turkey — would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.
NATO plans to invite Russia to join the missile shield effort, although Moscow would not be given joint control. The gesture would mark a historic milestone for the alliance, created after World War II to defend Western Europe against the threat of an invasion by Soviet forces.
As for the U.S.-Russia arms treaty, Obama was backed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, who told reporters that the treaty, called New START and signed in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, would improve security not only in Europe but beyond.
“I would strongly regret if it is delayed,” Rasmussen said. “A delay would be damaging for security in Europe, and I urge all parties involved to ratify it.”
Obama needs 67 votes in the Senate for ratification, and many Republicans have balked at even taking a vote before the new, more heavily GOP Congress convenes in January.
The summit occurs during a pivotal period for NATO, whose relevance is questioned by some who view the alliance as a relic. The adversary that prompted NATO’s creation in 1949 — the Soviet Union along with its Warsaw Pact allies — no longer exists.
After NATO’s rapid expansion during the past decade and a half — growing from 16 members to 28 — the gap in military prowess between the United States and most of the rest of the alliance has widened to the point where the basic nature of the defense partnership is in doubt.
Rasmussen told the opening session that it’s time for NATO countries to start “cutting fat and investing in muscle.”
This is where the American push for a NATO missile defense comes in. It would require a lot of money from European countries — estimated at about $260 million over 10 years — and a commitment to a more active type of defense.
It risks aggravating Russia, which has expressed worry that missile defenses could undermine the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal.
Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, took a positive view of prospects for working with Moscow.
“I believe we will find Russia and NATO will now decide that this is a time we move forward together on how to cooperate,” said Daalder, though he said today’s meetings weren’t likely to result in concrete agreements on missile defense cooperation.